Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 12, 2015 2 comments

Have you guys read the recent NY Times book review of three new sex and romance books? The books are called ‘Date-Onomics,’ ‘The Sex Myth,’ and ‘Modern Romance,’ and I have very strong opinions about them – surprise, surprise! – based only on the review.

Date-Onomics is premised on finding love by crunching the numbers and by assuming that all women are looking to snag a “good man” no matter what. Simplistic, but then again there are certainly numbers to consider, and the fact that more women than men attend college is definitely at odds with the way men don’t like to marry women who earn more than they do. And yes, I framed that to be an intentionally controversial way of looking at it.

Next, in the Sex Myth, they investigate the switch from everyone being a prude a short while ago to everyone supposedly – but not actually – being a kinkmeister now, and how we’d be better off not identifying ourselves so much with our sex lives. Also simplistic, since sex is a central aspect to our human identity. It’s not as if in the past we didn’t really care about each other’s sex lives; it’s just that sex lives were way more stifled. Name a moment in human history that we didn’t obsess and gossip about who was having sex with whom. I bet you can’t. Instead, I want us to have more than just sex as identities. It’s obviously terrible to only rely on your sex appeal, especially as you age and are suddenly unfuckable.

The third book reviewed is Modern Romance, and it seems to argue that we sometimes get carried away with the numbers and the seemingly endless options we have on the dating scene and forget to appreciate the humanity in each other. Also simplistic, because if you are the only person stopping to smell the roses, you will get trampled from behind. It’s a collective action problem, and a cultural problem.


OK, on with the advice! And after you enjoy said advice, please:

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,

I was reading Flash Boys (I know I’m a bit late to the game!) and was wondering if you might comment a bit on its accuracy as well as how you feel about IEX? I’m very tempted to believe Lewis/Katsuyama, but after watching some videos of them together with people vehemently denying all claims in the book I have become a bit hesitant. I was hoping your insider knowledge would be helpful! Thanks for your time.

Not Smart Enough To Know


Here’s the thing, it doesn’t really matter. For a few reasons, among them:

  1. The harm that was done by that whole scam, which is totally believable, is pretty small in terms of the trillions sloshing around in the market.
  2. There are plenty of other scams going on just like it. That’s what finance people do.
  3. It doesn’t affect the public nearly as much as the big stuff did like the financial crisis.

Putting all that together, who cares. I mean, Lewis is a great writer, and he tells a great story, but this time I think he just kind of randomly chose the good guys and bad guys and convinced everyone something terrible was going on because it sells books, when in fact it’s business as usual in the world of high frequency trading. If we could get rid of HFT altogether, that would be great, but that’s not what seems to be happening.

My two cents.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I want to apply for an assistant professor job at a particular university. This school has the overall department split into sub-departments and two of the sub-departments have openings for next year. My research could apply to either of the sub-departments, but the same person is listed as the search coordinator for both positions, so there is no way that it will not be noticed if I apply for both jobs. Is it “bad form” to apply for two jobs in the same department? Or do I have to pick just one?

Under Decision Paralysis

Dear UDP,

Hey, great news! You are qualified for not one but two jobs at the same place! Use it as an advantage. Apply for both, and in each cover letter mention that you’re applying for both, and that what this means is that your research will unite the two sub-departments and create synergies that everyone will really enjoy. Moreover, you’re sure you’d be incredibly happy taking either job. It doesn’t matter if the same people read your folders or not: assume not, but be the first person to frame the way to think of this as good news.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

How can we get America to not focus on the ‘hero’? I believe that this libertarian view has made the ‘winner take all’ acceptable. Those of us still employed are noticing that since only the ‘best’ are hired, there is no 2nd tier support staff, and we have to be do several jobs (thanks, computers).

Waiting For The Implosion

Dear WFTI,

Aunt Pythia hears you loud and clear. Did you hear about the new Harvard Business School report, where the alums they surveyed agreed that we should work on combatting inequality, the biggest problem of our day? Well, it might not surprised you to hear that they also said that the way to combat these problems are tax reforms and streamlined regulation, in other words stuff that will actually exacerbate it.

The answer is, I’m not sure. The way humans work is we care about individual stories. That’s why stuff got going about Syrian refugees after the picture of the little boy washed up on the beach. I guess what we need to do is make sure the individual stories we hear about are examples of larger issues important to a lot of people, rather than just aspirational hero-worshipping schlock.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a professional woman in my mid 30s, no kids, although I don’t mind if others choose have them, preferably responsibly.

Over the past few years, I have become friends with several members of a large family where both parents are immigrants. The mother, despite circumstances, has encouraged her children and herself to become educated and start businesses. They live in a remote small town, but come to the city often for social and business events.

My question concerns their 20 year old son “Alex”. Like several of his siblings, he was home schooled, though he has yet to finish an official program or pass the GED. I’ve offered to tutor him, but he hasn’t accepted. Alex can be very motivated about some things and has lots of ideas, but he seems to dream more than do, and has not looked for a job outside of helping his parents with their ventures.

So, recently, rather than “nagging” Alex about getting a GED or job, I’ve switched tactics to asking him what he wants to do and how he plans to get there. He’s pretty receptive to ideas but rarely takes action. Last week, when I asked him what he wanted in life, he said “20 kids!” I thought he was joking, but he seems to think he can go back to his father’s country, where he will not only be entitled to a bride, but also to her sheep, goats, and house. So, now what? How can I encourage Alex to work towards a dream that helps him become independent before bringing somebody or many somebodies into the mix?

20 Questions

Dear 20 Questions,

Talk about a cultural difference! It seems like these kids haven’t entirely left their home country. Home schooling is obviously part of that, but also the fact that the he is working in the family business doesn’t help.

Even so, he’s made friends with you, and you’re concerned. I think you should continue to be his friend, and help him think through what his future might be like. Would he want to bring his wife and 20 kids to the states? How would he support them? Stuff like that, which he might not have thought about. I would guess you could help him plan, and you may have some influence on his plans by doing so, but I don’t think you can change his plans entirely. But it sounds like you’re already doing this, so I would say, keep it up!

Also, keep in mind he’s only 20, and lots of things in his life will change before he actually has 20 kids, if he ever does.

Aunt Pythia


Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?

Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form for later or just do it now:

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I’ve found the soundtrack to my angsty teenaged life

September 11, 2015 7 comments

I grew up in the Breakfast Club era, which is to say a time when every teenager had a soundtrack to their lives, depending on where they fit in the social strata of their particular high school.

We would make mixed tapes, and listen to them on constant loop on our walkmans, until they were scratchy and worn, and we would take odd jobs to pay for the monumental AA battery use. A sure sign of long-lasting and meaningful friendship would be if one teenager made a mixed tape and gave it to another teenager. That would be a deep sign, both of kinship and, of course, of musical identity.

Personally, I was a misfit. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t belong in any clique, it means, ironically, that I fit in with “the misfits,” which were their own group, proud of not getting along with any other groups, except at times we’d forge alliances with the druggies. For example, when I first got to Lexington High School – my freshman year was 1986 – there was a smoking section outside the principal’s office where the misfits and the druggies could all smoke whatever we wanted, for some reason there were really no rules, and it was a happy time. By the time I left, though, the smokers were forced very slightly off campus, which is to say about a block away on Park Drive, and the temporary misfit/druggie alliance was forever broken. We misfits retreated to the J-House lounge.

I lived on Waltham Street, my house is on this map.

I lived on Waltham Street, and my old house is on this map.

Anyhoo, I’m getting away from myself, because I meant to talk about soundtracks, but I instead got carried away with nostalgic memories of hanging out – for a brief time – with the cool, fucked up kids.

My soundtrack was simple: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull. I wore an army jacket and was deeply misunderstood, and sometimes in the summer I’d tie dye shirts and refuse to participate in things. This is me refusing to participate in the junior prom:

Isn't my friend Karen looking gorgeous?!

Isn’t my friend Karen looking gorgeous?!

Here’s why this all came up today. If I could go back in time and live high school all over again, which I tend to do without permission anyway, I’d listen nonstop to Neutral Milk Hotel’s album, In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, even though it was release in 1998 and I graduated in 1990. Hey, it’s a fantasy, and they don’t always make sense.

I dare you to tell me you don’t agree when you hear the title track (or else you already know it, in which case you already agree):

Make sure you listen to the bridge, which is the best part of any song, ever.

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Bloggy young nerd women

September 10, 2015 7 comments

Today I want to share with you all two recent blog posts from nerdy young women. And who doesn’t love nerdy young women!?

The first is by Michelle G, an M.I.T. student, class of 2018, who is majoring in “14,” which is M.I.T. code for economics. She wrote a blogpost called Picture yourself as a stereotypical male, about the question of intelligence, gender, and stereotype threat. I thought I knew all about that stuff but I learned quite a bit from her post. p.s. Larry Summers, I hope you read this.

The second is by Meena Boppana, a Harvard CS major/math minor who has guest blogged here on mathbabe before. This post is called The Making of A Girl Mathlete, and it describes her experience winning math competitions, often as the only girl. Even though I personally think math contests kind of suck, I appreciate how much Meena got out of them.

Speaking of the Harvard math department, I’ll be there next Monday, on a panel with Moon Duchin talking about gender inclusivity in mathematics. It’s the first of a series. Here’s the Facebook page of the event.

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Holy crap, you guys rock

Yesterday I wrote a post complaining that I didn’t know how to find an awesome job. The thing is, most advertised data science jobs either make rich people richer (finance) or make poor people poorer (ad tech) [1]

Well, I asked for advice, and you guys seriously delivered. I am so very lucky to have such amazing commenters and friends, and as a small token of my gratitude I want to compile some of the advice I got.

  1. A lot of you encouraged me to try to first figure out what I want to do and then convince a company doing that to give me a job. Great idea! Someone even sent me articles with useful advice on how to do that, here and here.
  2. Someone suggest I look for independent contract work by searching this list. Great idea.
  3. I got a few people writing to me to encourage me to consider teaming up with the Data Science for Social Good crowd. Maybe I should start a New York chapter?
  4. Someone had a friend who made a huge list her favorite toys and then wrote to the companies that made them telling them she’d be great as an employee, and it totally worked. “Toys” can be taken to be a general term, of course.
  5. Someone encouraged me to consider the environment and the team I’d be working with rather than the job I’d be doing. Trouble is I tried that, it didn’t work. But it might work for someone else.
  6. A bunch of people mentioned working for non-profits as data people. Non-profits have their challenges to work with but they seem to need the help. Hopefully I’ll have a guest post soon on this issue.
  7. Many people wrote to me with ideas for specific jobs I should apply for. I will, thanks!
  8. Also, a few people just wrote saying I’d be fine and they had hope for me. Those were really nice emails.
  9. Finally, quite a few other data scientists wrote saying they, too, want to make the world a better place and are frustrated by the lack of obvious chances to do this. Obviously I’m not alone.

Anyway, thanks to everyone for their advice and encouragement. I’ll keep you updated.

1. In fact I consider it my go-to example of how “the market” fails, if you think the market is supposed to offer profitable opportunities to do stuff that is worthwhile and/or important for society. It’s kind of the opposite, but maybe – hopefully – I’m defining the market too narrowly, i.e. by searching for data science jobs on LinkedIn.

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What can a non-academic mathematician do that makes the world a better place?

You may have noticed the long-standing tagline on my About page:

What can a non-academic mathematician do that makes the world a better place?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. I’m looking for a job nowadays since my book project is wrapping up and I have no source of income. So far my attempts at sorting through the LinkedIn “data science” jobs are leading to a huge list of finance and online advertising jobs (which I don’t apply to), and a few others which are somewhat more interesting thrown in the mix. But they typically have more than 100 people each applying to them.

Which is to say, I’ve applied to a bunch of jobs I only kind of want and haven’t heard back from almost any of them. It’s kind of depressing. Actually it’s super depressing.

So I’ve come up with another way of thinking about searching. Why don’t I start with organizations that I think are doing cool things and offer them my data science expertise? In a consulting role primarily, but also longer-term if they are interested.

I know there are places where you can sign up to be an “expert witness,” so I’m looking for something similar: an expert consultant. There must already be ways to do this, but I don’t know how. Obviously one way would be to try to get a job at IBM, but then I’d be back to working for clients in finance.

Advice would be deeply appreciated. You can comment here or send me email at the address on my About page.

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Big data, disparate impact, and the neoliberal mindset

When you’re writing a book for the general public’s consumption, you have to keep things pretty simple. You can’t spend a lot of time theorizing about why some stuff is going on, you have to focus on what’s happening, and how bad it is, and who’s getting screwed. Anything beyond that and you’ll be called a conspiracy theorist by some level of your editing team.

But the good thing about writing a blog is that you can actually say anything you like. That’s one reason I cling so strongly to mathbabe; I need to be able to write stuff that’s mildly conspiracy-theoretical. After all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean nobody’s out to get you, right?

Anyhoo, I’m going to throw out a theory about big data, disparate impact, and the neoliberal mindset. First I need to set it up a bit.

Did you hear about this recent story whereby Facebook just got a patent to measure someone’s creditworthiness by looking at who their friends are and what their credit scores are? They idea is, you are more likely to be able to pay back your loans if the people you’re friends with pay back their loans.

On the one hand, it sounds possibly true: richer people tend to have richer friends, and so if there’s not very much information about someone, but that person is nevertheless inferred to be “friends with rich people,” then they might be a better bet for paying back loans.

On the other hand, it also sounds like an unfair way to distribute loans: most of us are friends with a bunch of people from high school, and if I happened to go to a high school filled with poor kids, then loans for me would be ruled out by this method.

This leads to the concept of disparate impact, which was beautifully explained in this recent article called When Big Data Becomes Bad Data (hat tip Marc Sobel). The idea is, when your process (or algorithm) favors one group of people over another, intentionally or not, it might be considered unfair and thus illegal. There’s lots of precedent for this in the courts, and recently the Supreme Court upheld it as a legitimate argument in Fair Housing Act cases.

It’s still not clear whether a “disparate impact” argument can be used in the case of algorithms, though. And there are plenty of people who work in the field of big data who dismiss this possibility altogether, and who even claim that things like the Facebook idea above are entirely legitimate. I had an argument on my Slate Money podcast last Friday about this very question.

Here’s my theory as to why it’s so hard for people to understand. They have been taken over in these matters by a neoliberal thought process, whereby every person is told to behave rationally, as an individual, and to seek maximum profit. It’s like an invisible hand on a miniature scale, acting everywhere and at all times.

Since this ideology has us acting as individuals, and ignoring group dynamics, the disparate impact argument is difficult if not impossible to understand. Why would anyone want to loan money to a poor person? That wouldn’t make economic sense. Or, more relevantly, why would anyone not distinguish between a poor person and a rich person before making a loan? That’s the absolute heart of how the big data movement operates. Changing that would be like throwing away money.

Since every interaction boils down to game theory and strategies for winning, “fairness” doesn’t come into the equation (note, the more equations the better!) of an individual’s striving for more opportunity and more money. Fairness isn’t even definable unless you give context, and context is exactly what this mindset ignores.

Here’s how I talk to someone when this subject comes up. I right away distinguish between the goal of the loaner – namely, accuracy and profit – and the goal of the public at large, namely that we have a reasonable financial system that doesn’t exacerbate the current inequalities or send people into debt spirals. This second goal has a lot to do with fairness and definitely pertains broadly to groups of people. Then, after setting that up, we can go ahead and discuss the newest big data idea, as long as we remember to look at it through both lenses.

Categories: Uncategorized

Project Occupy

September 3, 2015 1 comment

I’m very happy to announce that the wonderful high school students that we worked with over the summer at Occupy Summer School have decided to self-organize into an after-school program at their school, the UAI, starting this fall (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go check out our webpage or the press we got from the New Yorker written by Alex Carp).

A few of us from the Alt Banking group had a meeting with 5 of them earlier this week. Together they represent the organizing committee of their new activism group, which they named “Project Occupy.” Their plan is to hold weekly afternoon meetings, which will be topic-based, and for a given week they want material for their chosen topic in the form of a short video or an article. One of the topics they already chose for one of the first meetings is “cultural appropriation.” They then named a bunch of examples of cultural appropriation of black culture. I’m planning to send them this for reading material.

They are, as always, very sharp and observant. Teenagers are the best.

I am super proud of them and I can’t wait to see what they do. I told them how much they’ve taught us about keeping protests fun and generous, and giving away gifts of food or balloons (actually, both) to make their point well-received.

They want to eventually plan events around the topics they’ve learned about and gotten passionate about, and possibly also create podcasts or YouTube video series. Oh, and they want food at all their meetings. Gotta keep things fun.

Categories: Uncategorized

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