Aunt Pythia’s advice

Dearest Aunt Pythia readers! Do you know what makes Aunt Pythia super happy, blissful beyond belief? Aunt Pythia will tell you the answer to that right now: sweet letters from amazing nerd girls.

As you may or may not know, Aunt Pythia lives with and cares for a veritable brood of nerd boys – three of them, and four if you count her husband – but longs for a maternal role with nerd girls, her absolute favorite people in the world. But it just didn’t work out that way, no it didn’t. And she tried, oh yes.

So, given the reality of the situation, Aunt Pythia did her very best to make do. And make do she has done! In fact, the good news is that she has officially succeeded, as of yesterday, when she received this letter (which the writer has kindly agreed to allow me to publish):

Hi Mathbabe,

I just wanted to send you a fangirly email saying THANK YOU for publishing your blog. I’m going back to university for computer science after deciding years ago in high school that I just “wasn’t a math person,” and it’s been so reassuring and inspiring and FUN to read your blog and realize that …

a) I’m not the only person who feels inadequate sometimes!

b) It’s okay to study math even if you’re a little slow so long as you still like doing math!

c) It’s possible to study topics like math and computer science with a social justice angle and engagement with the world around me! (Sometimes it all seems so abstract and money-grubbing, you know?)

Anyway you rock. Whenever I feel down in my first-year calculus class, I check out your blog and feel good about my life again. You are a great role model.

Seriously, people, this is the stuff. It’s awesome.

Hey, and here’s the thing, Mathbabe a.k.a. Aunt Pythia has just started. She’s raring to go, in fact. So please, after enjoying today’s column:

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all at the bottom of the page!

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Do you have a position on trigger warnings in higher education?

The issue seems to have provoked a lot of controversy lately, and the controversy seems to have fallen along partisan lines. The argument on the left is that trigger warnings are a way to support the diversity of identities and experiences in the classroom and they are just as innocuous as movie ratings or “slippery when wet” signs. The argument on the right is that trigger warnings infantilize students and potentially have a chilling effect on open discussion in the classroom.

My opinion is that it is polite to warn someone before showing them disturbing images in any context, including and especially the classroom, but I am rather nervous about formal university policies which require trigger warnings or recommend the removal of triggering material. What do you think?

To Resist Image Gore? or Guarantee Everything Revealed?


I remember being in high school. I think it was my junior year, and in social studies we were reading the Greek myths. It seemed like every other story was about an earth woman who was super attractive, was raped by a god, and then punished for her seductive powers by the god’s jealous wife. I kept on getting outraged and stuck on this idea that women could be punished for being attractive and even for being raped.

Here’s the thing, though. I had a good teacher that year, who allowed me to declare my dismay at the story. We had a discussion in class about how morals change with culture. We talked about blaming victims and the inequity of those stories, from our perspectives. We even talked about the nature of human existence and desires, and of course the nature of godliness, and how that might have or might not have changed since the Greeks. Or at least that’s how I remember it. In other words, what started out as shocking became a learning experience.

I feel like my kids, when they become juniors in high school, might not get shown this stuff at all, depending on who the teacher is and what the climate is. That would be a shame. I think I benefitted a lot from that discussion, especially since I can still remember it, and especially because it was the first time I can remember examining brutality through the lens of intellectual inquiry. So I’m a firm “no” on removing material that would have a theoretical trigger warning on it, at least by the time they’re 15.

As for actual trigger warnings, I’m ambivalent. On the one hand I like the idea of girding people for oncoming tough moments, especially if signals people to pay more attention. On the other hand, I feel like sometimes they wouldn’t help, because the outrage is there whether or not you’ve mentally prepared, and trigger warnings might serve as a way for people to opt out of being engaged.

But my main problem with trigger warnings would be if they were seen as a replacement for the discussion of what’s so fucked up about punishing rape victims, or whatever it is. The point is that, as learners, we each must consume and metabolize the things we read, and a well-led discussion is when that all happens. It’s critical we don’t replace that with a tepid catch-all phrase that renders our rage unarticulated.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a heterosexual male, and I’m facing a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, I would like to consider myself a feminist, or at least sympathetic to feminism (perhaps one must engage in public activism to earn the title “feminist”). On the other hand (sometimes literally), I like porn.

Of course these two sensibilities are in tension because the pornography market is overall one of the most hyper-masculine, patriarchal, and misogynistic industries on the planet. And the problem is not limited to the product – porn actresses are systematically mistreated and underpaid, and having appeared in porn is a scarlet letter which can follow you around for the rest of your life.

One step which I took a long time ago was to never pay for porn or click on advertisements so that I could claim to have never directly supported the industry. It turns out that limiting yourself to only free porn is not much of a limitation at all, but I wonder if this is really as much of a stand as I make it out to be. Also, it doesn’t address the rather idiotic standards of content that seem to be rather universal in the industry. Sometimes on a Friday night all I want is to get drunk and relive the amazing sex I had with my ex-girlfriend, but this sex did not involve her wearing boots the whole time or me ejaculating on her face at the end.

This is turning into a bit of a rant, so let me cut to my actual question. Is there such a thing as ethical porn, and if so where does one find it? More generally, is it possible to be a consumer of porn without participating in offensive industry practices?

People Of Responsible Nudity, Never Overly Tormented Sexually; Can One Remedy Needs?


So, you’re not alone. Lots of people look at porn, and many of them want to feel like good people too. So what steps can you take? I’m afraid I have to start out by saying that, by refusing to pay, you might have done the opposite of what you should have been doing.

For example, take a look at the advice described here for ethical porn consumption:

  1. Stick with porn from big brands, who have higher standards for their actors. You will have to pay for this.
  2. Stick with performers you know and who control their careers and have their own websites.
  3. In fact, pay for their content directly from their websites, and don’t watch pirated versions on YouPorn.
  4. Finally, if you want alternatives, find home-made sexy time videos and pay for them. This sounds harder to validate.

Another couple of ideas: watch porn cartoons, where there’s no real people, or watch content from, where they interview the actors and you can feel somewhat relieved (but perhaps not entirely) that the stuff they just did was not coercive.

Here’s Aunt Pythia’s feelings about porn, that for the most part turns her off, and this is even ignoring the coercive and seedy sides of it, in a way. Very very very little of it concerns the woman’s pleasure. In fact there’s quite a bit of it, in her statistical sampling, that concerns blowjobs, or anal sex, or what have you, that is almost entirely not directly stimulative for the female partner (Deep Throat’s premise notwithstanding). On top of that, lots of it has embarrassingly unconvincing grunts and moans coming from the woman. Horrible.

It’s almost like the viewer is being trained to ignore what woman actually want in bed. For that reason alone she thinks it’s bad news for men, especially young men who don’t know what to expect with a real live woman.

I feel like there is a niche out there for this stuff, and maybe that’s what the “home-made videos” are all about, where the people involved actually know and enjoy each other’s naked body, and they aren’t ashamed, and both of them have a great time. I’m pretty sure it will cost money though, and that’s fine.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What skills might I need to be a credible candidate for a big data job? I just applied for one, although I seem to be missing a lot of what they asked. I program in Python, Java, Smalltalk, and Clojure. I could probably do Jython, as well, as there is a market for it, seemingly. There are groups in the Dallas area that are using NoSql databases, MySQL, Hadoop, Ruby on Rails, and Python. I found this opportunity by searching with Python. I think that they want Python and Django experience, while I only have Python right now.

Lost in Space

Dear LiS,

I’m not sure what kind of “big data job” you’re referring to. As an engineer? As a data scientist?

The thing is, you’ve listed programming languages, but I think the main thing people are looking for is problem solving experience and ability. Languages are the medium through which you formalize your solutions to problems, but they are only that; the main obstacle to most data questions is thoughtful approaches. And the way you develop them is by having lots of experience in knowing how to define and refine questions using data, how to measure and interpret signals, which algorithms do what, and so on. What language you’re using isn’t irrelevant, but it’s not the first thing I’d be talking about.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I was talking to a fellow academic about the under-representation of women in some areas of academia. He started with the typical “there is no sexism in academia, there might have been, but all those professors are about to retire.” I have arguments for this, like all the studies showing that women are judged harder than men with the exact same CV. But before I could respond, he continued with “and besides, we all know that women like babies and fluffy things more than hard math. By the way, do you want to go on a date with me?”.

Is there any possible response other than punching him in the face?

Female Mathematician

Dear FM,

Violence doesn’t solve anything! Or rather, why do with violence what can be accomplished much more easily with words?

I would suggest the following words in this scenario:

Hahahahahahaha! Oh my god you really got me there! For a moment you had me convinced that you really were the most horrifying asshole ever, and then to top it off, asking me out like that! What a HOOT!

Seriously, do you do stand-up? Is this your persona? It’s dead on.

Oh wait, were you kidding? You weren’t? You actually think that stuff? And you think that, in any universe, that would be attractive to women? How bizarre. I’m afraid I have to leave, I’m late for a meeting of women in math, where we discuss the cool math we’re doing, and afterwards we have pizza and gossip about conversations like this one.

Seriously, it takes some courage, but be direct. Tell the guy – through humor, if it helps – that this attitude is a direct obstacle for him getting what he wants. Make him reevaluate what he’s trying to achieve. If you punch him, it becomes all about you, thus defeating the purpose.

And good luck!

Aunt Pythia


People, people! Aunt Pythia loves you so much. And she knows that you love her. She feels the love. She really really does.

Well, here’s your chance to spread your Aunt Pythia love to the world! Please ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Starting work at the GovLab soon

Guys! Exciting changes are afoot.

I’m extremely happy to say that I finished my first draft of my book, and although it’s not the end of that story, it’s still rather exhilarating. As of now the publication date is May 2016. My editor is reading it this week. Fingers crossed, everyone.

In the meantime, I’ve also recently heard that a grant proposal that I was on came through. This will have me working on interesting data questions from the Department of Justice out of the GovLab, which is run by Beth Noveck. It’ll be part time for now, at least until my book is done and until the Occupy Summer School is over, which is taking place more or less across the street from GovLab in downtown Brooklyn.

One thing that’s particularly great about being almost done with the book is that I’m looking forward to getting back to short-form writing. I’ve been so involved in the book, but as you can imagine it’s a very different mindset than a blogpost. When you write a book you have to carry around in your head an enormous amount of context, but when you write a blogpost you just need to have one idea and to say it well. It also helps if you’re annoyed (right, Eugene?).

Anyhoo, I’m pretty good at being annoyed, and I love and miss being mathbabe, so I’m more or less psyched to be coming back more consistently to this format soon. Although the life of a book writer is pretty awesome too, and I will definitely miss it. My favorite part has been the magical ability to connect with people who are experts on subjects I’m trying to learn about. Turns out people are extremely generous with their time and expertise, and I am grateful for that!

Categories: data science

Jordan’s here!

I’m excited as always to see my buddy Jordan Ellenberg, who’s in town accepting a Guggenheim Fellowship.

You might have thought that Guggenheims were awarded to starving artists, and you would be mostly right, but they also give them out to a couple of math people each year as well.

Since Jordan has kids and I have kids, we got to talking about how fantastic our kids are, which led Jordan to show me this adorable video involving him and his son C.J.:

It’s in reference to the National Math Festival, which was held in April in D.C.. Jordan spoke there about his book How Not To Be Wrong, which I reviewed a while ago. A couple of comments:

  • If you look carefully, you will also see my buddy Rebecca Goldin with one of her (many) adorable kids in the video,
  • My favorite part (and Jordan’s) is where he puts his head inside a Fibonacci sequence, even though that makes no sense,
  • My sons would never be this math positive. They enjoy talking about how much they hate school in general and math in particular.
  • I’m kind of proud of how I’m raising them to be “independent thinkers,” though, which is what I call that.
Categories: Uncategorized

Sharing insurance costs with the sharing economy

One consequence of the “sharing economy” that hasn’t been widely discussed, at least as far as I’ve seen, is how the externalities are being absorbed. Specifically, insurance costs.

Maybe because it’s an ongoing process, but for both Uber and AirBnB, the companies tell individuals who drive that their primary car insurance should be in use, and they tell individual home- or apartment-dwellers that their renters insurance should apply.

In other words, if something goes wrong, the wishful thinking goes, the private, individual insurance plans should kick in.

When people have tried to verify this, however, they responses have been mixed and mostly negative. The insurance companies obviously don’t want to cover a huge number of people for circumstances they didn’t expect when they offered the coverage.

So, if an Uber driver gets into an accident while ferrying a passenger, it’s not clear whether their primary insurance will cover it. It’s even less clear if the driver is using the Uber app and is on their way to get a passenger. Similarly, if an AirBnB guest falls because of a broken staircase, it’s not clear who is supposed to pay for the damages to the person or the staircase. What if the guest burns down the house?

So far I don’t think it’s been fully decided, but I think one of two things could happen.

In the first scenario, the insurance companies will really refuse to cover such things. To do this they will have to have a squad of investigators who somehow make sure the customer in question was or was not hosting a guest or driving a customer. That would involve suspicion and some amount of harassment, which customers don’t like.

In the second scenario, which I think is more likely given the above, the insurance companies will quietly pay for the damages accrued by Uber and AirBnB usage. They won’t advertise this, and if asked, they will discourage any customer from doing stuff like that, but they also won’t actually refuse to pay the costs, which they will simply transfer to the larger pool of customers. It doesn’t really matter to them at all, in fact, as long as they are not the only insurance company with this problem.

That will mean that the quants who figure out the costs of insurance will see their numbers change over time, depending on how much more the insurance is being called into action. I expect this to happen a lot more for Uber drivers, because if you are an Uber driver 40 hours a week, that means you’re always in your car. So our insurance costs will go up in proportion to how many people become Uber drivers. I expect this to happen somewhat more for AirBnB renters, because the house or apartment is in constant use; if it’s being rented by rowdy partiers, all the more. Our renters insurance will go up in proportion to how many people are AirBnB renters.

That reminds me of a story my dad used to like telling, whereby a friend of his rented out his Cambridge house to a Harvard professor, and when he came back it was totally trashed, including what looked like a bonfire pit in the living room. The professor in question was Timothy Leary.

Anyhoo, my overall conclusion is that the new “sharing economy” businesses really will end up sharing something with the rest of us soon, namely the cost of insurance. We will all be paying more for car insurance and home- or renters-insurance if my guess is accurate. Thanks, guys.

Categories: economics, rant, statistics

Aunt Pythia’s advice

My friends, good morning. Go ahead and let yourself in, there’s hot tea in the pot over there. Somewhat stale cookies as well, somewhere. Come sit on the couch with me when you’ve collected yourself.

Friend, please don’t expect too much from Aunt Pythia this morning, and pretty please: keep it down to a whisper.

Here’s the thing. The TomTown Ramblers, my bluegrass band, had a gig last night. And it wasn’t at some random place, no. It was at Aunt Pythia’s house. And yes, we killed it. It might have helped that we invited a bunch of people who love us and who knew it was their job to tell us how great we were, but still.

Killed. It. It’s dead. Just like the kitchen.

It's always easier to clean up after parties than it seems. Or at least finger crossed about that.

It’s always easier to clean up after parties than it seems. Or at least fingers crossed about that.

Aunt Pythia mentions this because you should all know that, instead of cleaning up the immense amount of empties and stale Doritos, she is stepping carefully over it all to sit on the couch and dole out the advice. But she’s pretty sure she’s off her game, so please add comments to correct her many mistakes below.

Be vigilant, people! Help a sister out in her hour of hangover need! And while you’re at it, please:

ask Aunt Pythia a made-up sex 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.


Hi Aunt Pythia,

I’m a university student studying science. I find I struggle a lot more than some of my friends in my program, who grasp the concepts faster and more comprehensively than I do. A lot of these people are gifted in the sense that they were segregated during high school for achieving high scores on aptitude tests. I, on the other, scored in the average range on such tests. When I compare myself to my friends, I often feel hopelessly inadequate. It’s like I’m struggling to catch up while everyone around me is moving relentlessly forward. It makes me question whether I should remain in my program and whether I can achieve my ambition of eventually doing research in my field as PhD.

Do you think this is all in my head? Is natural intelligence a significant factor? Do you believe it’s innate or can be built up? Do you think the IQ test (or other aptitude tests for that matter) accurate reflect a person’s talent or “potential”?

Thank you,

Uncertain about Academics


Dear Uncertain,

I don’t know the answer to your questions, but here are a few things I do know which might help.

First of all, you don’t have to be a certified genius to be a scientist. There are plenty of people who become scientists wondering how they got the job, because they’re surrounded by people that “seem like geniuses” and they feel mortal in Comparison. But here’s the thing, they are my favorite people, because they’re doing what they love in spite of feeling out of place. They feel lucky to be there.

Second of all, there’s no reason to think you’re not a genius. People in those partitioned and accelerated programs often get a big jump on college-level classes and sophistication. Moreover, they get a decidedly huge jump on the ability to act as if they already know stuff when they don’t. So if you interpret their casual remarks on face value, they might seem lightyears ahead of you, but who knows. The main point is that a couple of semesters of college is worth an entire high school career, so sit tight and see how things shape up in a few months.

Third of all, and most importantly, do what you love. Yes, there are a bunch of tests to see “how smart you are” and then there are tests in your classes to see “how well you know something,” but all of that should be ignored when you think about who you actually are and what you actually want to do. I’m not saying you’ll never compromise, or that you’ll ignore your professors if they tell you to modify your expectations, but I do want to emphasize that this is your life, and you get to control it, and nobody – and especially no test – has the ability to determine whether you are well-suited to a given topic. That’s up to you to decide.

Finally, my husband thinks that intelligence is something you do, not something you are. I think that it might be more complicated, but it’s a good first approximation. In other words, if you focus on good habits of mind, including being skeptical, disciplined, curious, and earnest (with a good dose of humility), then you will be far more prepared for a lifetime of science than by being anxious, competitive, or even cocky.

I hope that’s helpful!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I think you blew it in your answer to “too sad for acronym” in this Aunt Pythia post from a few weeks ago. I’ve been monogamous for going on 45 years, so you can take my opinion for what it’s worth BUT:

The key point is mathematicians are people, too. It’s fine to talk math with a lovely stranger, but at some point you have to say “Hmm, that’s all interesting. How did you come to be interested in that problem? Where did you do your undergraduate work?” and then, “Oh, that’s interesting, where are you from originally?” followed by “Ah, yes, I’ve been there. Have you been to Chez XYZ? Yes, that’s a great restaurant.” After a while, you’ll get to, “Do you have a family? What do they do for a living? Ah, very interesting. Mine are pretty colorful, too…” And pretty soon you aren’t talking math any more, and you can say “do you want to go grab a drink/coffee/dessert?”

And after that it’s up to you. But you need to stop feeling sorry for yourself; otherwise none of this will work.

Good Scientist Trying to be a Good Human

Good Scientist,

It’s great advice, to be sure. However, I think you’re missing half the context if you start with the conversation already happening. Mostly what I was trying to counter with “too sad for acronym” was the idea that you could initiate a conversation with someone on the assumption that you’re interested in (their) math, and then use the opportunity to hit on her.

In other words, if you just happen to be having dinner with someone, your advice above is great. But if you got her to have dinner with you by saying, “I’d love to discuss your paper!” then not so great. In fact it will seem to the person like a bait and switch.

Basically all I was hoping to achieve with my advice was a way to avoid that, by deliberately creating a bunch of opportunities where you would eventually “happen” to have dinner with someone. After which you could follow the advice above.

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

I am a first year PhD student in math and just got awarded an NSF graduate research fellowship. Prior to receiving this fellowship, my department guaranteed 25k for three years, part of which is a small summer stipend (about $6000). When I told my department I got an NSF, I asked if I could combine the summer stipend with NSF and they said that I would not be able to do this and that they were rewriting/changing my funding letter that they gave to me last year.

I was bummed out when I heard about that, but not too upset. But then I heard (aka not 100% sure) that an incoming grad student next year got an NSF but he wanted to teach (which you can’t do while taking NSF money), so the department said they would give him $7000 extra his first year (so 32k total) so he can defer his fellowship and teach. Also, because the department doesn’t care or it’s just something they have overlooked, I think (again not 100% sure) if you get a job over the summer, you can still get the summer stipend, which doesn’t seem fair to me since they won’t give it to someone who has a fellowship and staying at school yet they’ll give it to someone who is working for someone else.

I know money isn’t everything and it’s a small amount of money and I should just be grateful for having the NSF in the first place, but I just feel jipped especially since I am now saving the department/school a significant amount of money for the next 3 years (NSF pays a 34k stipend + 12k tuition for 3 years)!

How much room do students have to push/negotiate with departments? I know some schools give out bonuses for bringing in outside money. Clearly, mine is not one of those schools. I *definitely* do not want to get on someone’s bad side or look that money hungry. Am I being way too whiny and should I just suck it up? Or should I say something? I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, so how would I even go about doing this (especially since I am *so* timid and shy)?


Dear TTFL,

Gosh, I have no idea. I mean, beyond offering to teach, so your situation would be more analogous. I mean, as of now, unless my head is still drunk, you don’t actually have a conflicting story.

But I don’t know what the standard practice is, and the only person in this household who does is currently snoring. That means it’s an awesome question for a hangover column, because I’m betting some of my readers will have opinions about this.

In any case, it is indeed fantastic that you got that NSF! Congratulations!

Aunt Pythia


Good Day,

My name is (something), am here to testify of a great spell caster called Dr. X. This man is truly a great spell caster indeed. I contacted this great man for a help and just within two days my problem was completely solved. My ex- came back to me just within 48 hours begging me to accept him back. Now we are fully back again as lovers, all thanks to Dr. X and his great temple for restoring pace to my life. His contact email address is,

He is also specialized in the following.

1. He can help you cast a spell to get pregnant.
2. He can help you cast a Death Spell.
3. He can help you cast a Promotion spell.
4. He can help you cast Lottery spell.
5. Spell of luck.
6. Spell of Finance.
7. If you have been scam before, he can help you cast a spell to get your money back.
8.He can help you solve your low sperm count.

And many more.. contact him on his private email and explain what you want him to do for you i assure you he shall help,His email is:

Good Luck


Dear (something),

HAHAHAHA I’ll take #7.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Not too long ago I graduated from a good school, landed a great job, and came out as gay and somewhat naively thought that with all of this things would “get better”.

I’ve never really been on a date before and still feel like I’m making up for awkward middle/high school development most folks around my age have gone through (super shy around guys, does he “like me like me”…etc.).

One thing that I didn’t account for and never really thought would be an issue is race. I happen to also be black, and find that there seem to be a looooot of people who either feel that they simply don’t find black guys attractive, creepily fetishize it (lots of chocolate references and expectations that I’m super aggressive), or don’t even consider a date possible because they don’t tend to think it’s possible for black people to share their interests.

It doesn’t seem unique to white people either. I noticed this before when people thought I was straight but it seems really prominent/visible on the gay side of things and the data available suggests this (see this for example).

I respect people’s preferences and totally understand I’m not the center of the universe…but what am I supposed to do now? It almost doesn’t really feel as though coming out was worth it anymore (and frankly all this hurts more than I thought) especially if I’m just hoping to find mutual attraction for minorities within a minority group. What’s worse is I’m wondering if things only “get better” for certain people. Any tips, or words of wisdom are welcome. Until then I’ll just keep telling people that I too “love to laugh”, listen to NPR, and judge Kardashians.

Just Like You

Dear JLY,

First of all, congratulations on all your accomplishments! Sounds like you are awesome and crush-worthy.

If it helps, I have cute white friends who leave what I think of as large American progressive cities because they are gay and the scene is too small. So you’re not alone in finding this difficult.

If you needed more evidence, I just googled “good scene for black gay men” and I came up with an article entitled, Are All Single Black Gay Men Bitter?

Here’s the thing, I know nothing about being a black gay man. But I do know statistics, and I suggest you play the numbers. That would mean spending time in New York or San Francisco whenever you can to meet people in a larger dating pool. I have no idea where you live normally, but make it a point to visit whenever you can, on vacations or even weekend trips. Keep meeting people, and get used to hanging out in a social and fun way, and eventually work your way into a date.

I wouldn’t suggest telling anyone that you’ve never been on a date before: fake it til you make it on that score. And anyway, that’s not important, because being on a date is just like hanging out and talking with someone. The only real difference is, if it goes well, you can get all crushed out on them and not feel weird about it.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Congratulations, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied, you could have lazed about in your pajamas for longer. Oh wait, you’re still in your pajamas, I take it all back. Well done.

But as long as you’re already here, 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: Aunt Pythia

Nick Kristof is not Smarter than an 8th Grader

This is a post by Eugene Stern, originally posted on his blog

About a week ago, Nick Kristof published this op-ed in the New York Times. Entitled Are You Smarter than an 8th Grader, the piece discusses American kids’ underperformance in math compared with students from other countries, as measured by standardized test results. Kristof goes over several questions from the 2011 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) test administered to 8th graders, and highlights how American students did worse than students from Iran, Indonesia, Ghana, Palestine, Turkey, and Armenia, as well as traditional high performers like Singapore. “We all know Johnny can’t read,” says Kristof, in that finger-wagging way perfected by the current cohort of New York Times op-ed columnists; “it appears that Johnny is even worse at counting.”

The trouble with this narrative is that it’s utterly, demonstrably false.

My friend Jordan Ellenberg pointed me to this blog post, which highlights the problem. In spite of Kristof’s alarmism, it turns out that American eighth graders actually did quite well on the 2011 TIMSS. You can see the complete results here. Out of 42 countries tested, the US placed 9th. If you look at the scores by country, you’ll see a large gap between the top 5 (Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan) and everyone else. After that gap comes Russia, in 6th place, then another gap, then a group of 9 closely bunched countries: Israel, Finland, the US, England, Hungary, Australia, Slovenia, Lithuania, and Italy. Those made up, more or less, the top third of all the countries that took the test. Our performance isn’t mind-blowing, but it’s not terrible either. So what the hell is Kristof talking about?

You’ll find the answer here, in a list of 88 publicly released questions from the test (not all questions were published, but this appears to be a representative sample). For each question, a performance breakdown by country is given. When I went through the questions, I found that the US placed in the top third (top 14 out of 42 countries) on 45 of them, the middle third on 39, and the bottom third on 4. This seems typical of the kind of variance usually seen on standardized tests. US kids did particularly well on statistics, data interpretation, and estimation, which have all gotten more emphasis in the math curriculum lately. For example, 80% of US eighth graders answered this question correctly:

Which of these is the best estimate of (7.21 × 3.86) / 10.09?

(A) (7 × 3) / 10   (B) (7 × 4) / 10   (C) (7 × 3) / 11   (D) (7 × 4) / 11

More American kids knew that the correct answer was (B) than Russians, Finns, Japanese, English, or Israelis. Nice job, kids! And let’s give your teachers some credit too!

But Kristof isn’t willing to do either. He has a narrative of American underperformance in mind, and if the overall test results don’t fit his story, he’ll just go and find some results that do! Thus, the examples in his column. Kristof literally went and picked the two questions out of 88 on which the US did the worst, and highlighted those in the column. (He gives a third example too, a question in which the US was in the middle of the pack, but the pack did poorly, so the US’s absolute score looks bad.) And, presto! — instead of a story about kids learning stuff and doing decently on a test, we have yet another hysterical screed about Americans “struggling to compete with citizens of other countries.”

Kristof gives no suggestions for what we can actually do better, by the way. But he does offer this helpful advice:

Numeracy isn’t a sign of geekiness, but a basic requirement for intelligent discussions of public policy. Without it, politicians routinely get away with using statistics, as Mark Twain supposedly observed, the way a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination.

So do op-ed columnists, apparently.

The New York Real Estate Mafia

Sometimes your conspiracy theory turns out to be absolutely true.

Over the past few years, primarily due to conversations I’ve had at my weekly Alt Banking meetings, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the crazy real estate industry in New York City and New York State. A few pertinent facts:

I am really hoping we can clear up this mess and end the corruption in the New York real estate market soon. Housing is a big deal.

Categories: Uncategorized

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,258 other followers