Navigating sexism does not mean accepting sexism

Not enough time for a full post this morning, but I’d like people to read a New York Times article ironically entitled Moving Past Gender Barriers to Negotiate a Raise (hat tip Laura Strausfeld). It has amazing and awful tidbits like the following:

“It’s totally unfair because we don’t require the same thing of men. But if women want to be successful in this domain, they need to pay attention to this.”

If you read on you realize that what they mean by “pay attention to” is “roll over and conform to stereotypes”. Super gross, and fuck that.

I feel like this is a more subtle, New York Times version of Susan Patton’s terrible advice for young women in snaring husbands. What happened to the feminists?!!

Categories: rant

Lobbyists have another reason to dominate public commenting #OWS

Before I begin this morning’s rant, I need to mention that, as I’ve taken on a new job recently and I’m still trying to write a book, I’m expecting to not be able to blog as regularly as I have been. It pains me to say it but my posts will become more intermittent until this book is finished. I’ll miss you more than you’ll miss me!

On to today’s bullshit modeling idea, which was sent to me by both Linda Brown and Michael Crimmins. It’s a new model built in part by the former chief economist for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Andrei Kirilenko, who is now a finance professor at Sloan. In case you don’t know, the CFTC is the regulator in charge of futures and swaps.

I’ll excerpt this New York Times article which describes the model:

The algorithm, he says, uncovers key word clusters to measure “regulatory sentiment” as pro-regulation, anti-regulation or neutral, on a scale from -1 to +1, with zero being neutral.

If the number assigned to a final rule is different from the proposed one and closer to the number assigned to all the public comments, then it can be inferred that the agency has taken the public’s views into account, he says.

Some comments:

  1. I know really smart people that use similar sentiment algorithms on word clusters. I have no beef with the underlying NLP algorithm.
  2. What I do have a problem with is the apparent assumption that the “the number assigned to all the public comments” makes any sense, and in particular whether it takes into account “the public’s view”.
  3. It sounds like the algorithm dumps all the public comment letters into a pot and mixes it together to get an overall score. The problem with this is that the industry insiders and their lobbyists overwhelm public commenting systems.
  4. For example, go take a look at the list of public letters for the Volcker Rule. It’s not unlike this graphic on the meetings of the regulators on the Volcker Rule:reg_volcker
  5. Besides dominating the sheer number of letters, I’ll bet the length of each letter is also much longer on average for such parties with very fancy lawyers.
  6. Now think about how the NLP algorithm will deal with this in a big pot: it will be dominated by the language of the pro-industry insiders.
  7. Moreover, if such a model were to be directly used, say to check that public commenting letters were written in a given case, lobbyists would have even more reason to overwhelm public commenting systems.

The take-away is that this is an amazing example of a so-called objective mathematical model set up to legitimize the watering down of financial regulation by lobbyists.


Update: I’m willing to admit I might have spoken too soon. I look forward to reading the paper on this algorithm and taking a deeper look instead of relying on a newspaper.

Categories: #OWS, finance, modeling, rant

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia is so very pleased to bring you more of her pearls of wisdom this nearly-believably-spring morning.

In celebration of above-freezing temperature, she’s extra cheerful and she welcomes the clouds and drizzle. After all, late March showers bring late April flowers, or something like that! Let there be blooming and cleansing!

And please, after you enjoy Aunt Pythia’s wisdom, and possibly after you clean out the front closet, please don’t forget 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,

What the hell is goin’ on with Bitcoin? Will it survive into the future (or something else akin to it) or is it ultimately doomed???

Bitcoin Boogie

p.s. – I hope you realize you’ll probably have more success explaining quantum mechanics to me than Bitcoin.

Dear BB,

I promise not to try to explain Bitcoin’s underlying algorithms. But I think I can still answer your questions.

First of all, Bitcoin has been in the news lately in bad or confusing ways, first with the exchange (Mt. Gox) that went bankrupt, and second because regulators and institutional authorities are having trouble figuring out what Bitcoins are.

Even so, think of these hiccups as growing pains, according to Coinbase co-founder and former Goldman Sachs foreign exchange trader Fred Ehrsam, quoted as saying inspiring things like:

I would go to the bathroom and trade bitcoin on my smartphone and then return to my real desk to do my real job trading real currency.

If you don’t know about it, Coinbase is the “digital wallet” company that you’d probably sign up with if you wanted Bitcoins and you weren’t a huge nerd or a criminal willing to do things on the technical downlow: it makes owning Bitcoins easy, like signing up for a normal checking account.

And they are seeing lots of people joining, and they just got Overstock to accept Bitcoins as payment. So Ehrsam and people like him are pretty positive, and you never know.

Between you and me, though, I think the biggest competitor out there is Google, which has plans to allow people to share money over gmail (hat tip Suresh Naidu). Instead of paying heavy fees, you – guess what – tell Google about your checking accounts and other financial information. I see this potentially competing with banks, Apple, and of course PayPal, which sucks.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am originally from a country where it’s normal to be sentimental. I am easily moved to tears and worry that this annoys others around me. Of course I can take counter-measures, for example I try to steady myself if the music is becoming emotional or before viewing some breathtakingly beautiful scenery, or, when news about a disaster or a sad film is being shown on the television I discreetly leave the room before it affects me.

I would like to be strong enough to withstand what appears to provoke no reaction in people here. Do you have any suggestion?

Too Sensitive

Dear Too,

I hear you, I’m a huge cryer too.  I blame the Irish side of my family.

What I do is I playfully prepare people I’m around, for their own comfort, and especially when they are not familiar with this side of me. So when I feel some sentimentality coming on, I’ll announce, “Hey I’m about to totally cry, because that’s what I do! Please bear with me and please ignore the tears, I’ll be OK in 10 minutes or less.” and then I’ll laugh, usually out of embarrassment.

That way they will know I realize it’s about me, not them, and that they’re not responsible to comfort me in any way. It works great, and it’s easy for me to do because I’m an extrovert. If you’re shy, it’s going to be harder, but the alternative is often that you have to explain yourself while you’re crying, which I think is worse.

Good luck!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia.

I am but a humble traveler trying to win you over with a Firefly reference and desperately seeking your advice.

Come July, I will find myself in New York for a week. I will be in need of a place to stay and some things to do while I’m visiting your fine city.

I have been looking on airbnb for a place to stay over a hotel or a hostel but am overwhelmed by all the options. Do I stay in Brooklyn, or Lower Manhattan? Harlem or the Upper West Side. I am a young data analyst from New Zealand, what do I know of New York neighborhoods?

And then there is the sightseeing, do I go and tick off all the tourist spots or are there better things for me to do with my time? Do you know any secret spots filled with good food, great coffee and devoid of the fanny-pack wearing, obnoxiously-photographing tourist hordes?


Seeking Habitation In New York

P.S. In New Zealand we call fanny-packs ‘bum-bags’. A fanny in NZ is something entirely different!


I don’t know from Firefly, sorry. But I’ll answer you anyway and let readers add their opinions.

I’d suggest you stay in a different neighborhood every night or two. That way you get to see more of New York, and any annoyance is short-lived. Most of your time will be spent traveling from place to place, so pack light. Make sure at least one night is in Astoria, Queens, which is just cool and kind of the epitome of the melting pot.

The reason I suggest this is that, for me, official tourist destinations are incredibly boring and expensive for what they offer (and what they offer is bum-bag bearing tourists, which you can already see in NZ anyway). I mean, if you think you’ll regret not going to the top of the Empire State Building, then by all means go, but go 10 minutes before they open and depart quickly.

Authentic sight-seeing in New York City consists, in my opinion, of walking through neighborhoods and checking out bars and restaurants and the local cultural gathering places. Look for live music in each neighborhood you stay in, if you like that sort of thing. Or if you are into food, make a plan for a foodie tour of each neighborhood. Yum!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

In searching online dating profile in New York City (I live nearby), I encounter a bunch of profiles of finance professionals working in, say, investment banking. After reading your blog, I have become convinced that people who work in banking

1) are morally bankrupt
1.5) are swindlers
2) are not very thoughtful in regards to the concerns of the 99%
3) are greedy
4) are arrogant … they think they are the best and the brightest, and point to the fake wealth they created to justify their salary
5) are overworked, stressed out at work, and their job is slowly killing them physically and emotionally
6) have expectations of a lavish lifestyle (nothing wrong with that, just not for me…I can’t compete, and perhaps mo money mo problems)

Am I right or am I right? Should I even bother expressing an interest in these profiles?

Just Pondering

Dear Just,

There are two questions here, which I’d like to pose separately.

First, are investment bankers are morally bankrupt swindlers who ignore lesser folk and hate their jobs?

Second, how do optimize my chances of finding love – or at least great sex with a tolerable partner – on an online dating site?

The answer to the first questions is, of course not. There are plenty of people in finance and even in investment banking that are perfectly nice and even sensitive and empathetic. On the other hand, there is some story explaining why they’re there, and it often exposes a weird side to them. On the other other hand, who here doesn’t have a weird side? On the whole I’d say, never disqualify someone on one attribute, especially if they otherwise seem great and you find yourself liking them at a basic human level.

The answer to the second question is a lot trickier, though, and is related to the first in the following sense: if you are playing the numbers – which is all you can do on these websites – then you might well decide to avoid investment bankers. After all, you only have so much time and some many free Friday nights, and you want to optimize for best chance of liking someone. All you have is demographic information like their job and age, and even if you gather more information through emails, you might first want to filter out red flags, and you might find “investment banker” to be a red flag.

As an aside, I would love someone to do a quantitative and qualitative investigation to see how people have changed their dating and mating habits through online dating. It seems like the most profound area of the internet affecting cultural practices.

My bottomline suggestion is to try to find a date through a friend of a friend. Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


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


Categories: Aunt Pythia

Interview with a high school principal on the math Common Core

In my third effort to understand the Common Core State Standards (CC) for math, I interviewed an old college friend Kiri Soares, who is the principal and co-founder of the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women. Here’s a transcript of the interview which took place earlier this month. My words are in italics below.


How are high school math teachers in New York City currently evaluated?

Teachers are now evaluated on 2 things:

  1. First, measures of teacher practice, which are based on observations, in turn based on some rubric. Right now it’s the Danielson Rubric. This is a qualitative measure. In fact it is essentially an old method with a new name.
  2. Second, measures of student learning, that is supposed to be “objective”. Overall it is worth 40% of the teacher’s score but it is separated into two 20% parts, where teachers choose the methodology of one part and principals choose the other. Some stuff is chosen for principals by the city. Any time there is a state test we have to choose it. In terms of the teachers’ choices, there are two ways to get evaluated: goals or growth. Goals are based on a given kid, and the teachers can guess they will get a certain slightly lower score or higher score for whatever reason. Otherwise, it’s a growth-based score. Teachers can also choose from an array of assessments (state tests, performance tests, and third party exams). They can also choose the cohort (their own kids/ the grade/the school). The city also chose performance tasks in some instances.

Can you give me a concrete example of what a teacher would choose as a goal?

At the beginning of year you give diagnostic tests to students in your subject. Based on what a given kid scored in September, you extrapolate a guess for their performance in the June test. So if a kid has a disrupted homelife you might guess lower. Teacher’s goal setting is based on these teachers’ guesses.

So in other words, this is really just a measurement of how well teachers guess?

Well they are given a baseline and teachers set goals relative to that, but yes. And they are expected to make those guesses in November, possibly well before homelife is disrupted. It definitely makes things more complicated. And things are pretty complicated. Let me say a bit more.

The first three weeks of school are all testing. We test math, social studies, science, and English in every grade, and overall it depending on teacher/principal selections it can take up to 6 weeks, although not in a given subject. Foreign language and gym teachers also getting measured, by the way, based on those other tests. These early tests are diagnostic tests.

Moreover, they are new types of tests, which are called performance-based assessments, and they are based on writing samples with prompts. They are theoretically better quality because they go deeper, the aren’t just bubble standardized tests, but of course they had no pre-existing baseline (like the state tests) and thus had to be administered as diagnostic. Even so, we are still trying to predict growth based on them, which is confusing since we don’t know how to predict performance on new tests. Also don’t even know how we can consistently grade such essay-based tests- despite “norming protocols”, which is yet another source of uncertainty.

How many weeks per year is there testing of students?

The last half of June is gone, a week in January, and 2-3 weeks in the high school in the beginning per subject. That’s a minimum of 5 weeks per subject per year, out of a total of 40 weeks. So one eighth of teacher time is spent administering tests. But if you think about it, for the teachers, it’s even more. They have to grade these tests too.

I’ve been studying the rhetoric around the CC. So far I’ve listened to Diane Ravitch stuff, and to Bill McCallum, the lead writer of the math CC. They have very different views. McCallum distinguished three things, which when they are separated like that, Ravitch doesn’t make sense.

Namely, he separates standards, curriculum, and testing. People complain about testing and say that CC standards make testing easier, and we already have too much testing, so CC is a bad thing. But McCallum makes this point: good standards also make good testing easier.

What do you think? Do teachers see those as three different things? Or is it a package deal, where all three things rolled into one in terms of how they’re presented?

It’s much easier to think of those three things as vertices of a triangle. We cannot make them completely isolated, because they are interrelated.

So, we cannot make the CC good without curriculum and assessment, since there’s a feedback loop. Similarly, we cannot have aligned curriculum without good standards and assessment, and we cannot have good tests without good standards and curriculum. The standards have existed forever. The common core is an attempt to create a set of nationwide standards. For example, without a coherent national curriculum it might seem OK to teach creationism in place of evolution in some states. Should that be OK?

CC is attempting to address this, in our global economy, but it hasn’t even approached science for clear political reasons. Math and English are the least political subjects so they started with those. This is a long time coming, and people often think CC refers to everything but so far it’s really only 40% of a kid’s day. Social studies CC standards are actually out right now, but they are very new.

Next, the massive machine of curriculum starts getting into play, as does the testing. I have CC standards and the CC-aligned test, but not curriculum.

Next, you’re throwing into the picture teacher evaluation aligned to CC tests. Teachers are freaking out now – they’re thinking, my curriculum hasn’t been CC-aligned for many years, what do I do now? By the way, importantly, none of the high school curriculum in NY State is actually CC-aligned now. DOE recommendations for the middle school happened last year, and DOE people will probably recommend this year for high school, since they went into talks with publication houses last year to negotiate CC curriculum materials.

The real problem is this: we’ve created these new standards to make things more difficult and more challenging without recognizing where kids are in the present moment. If I’m a former 5th grader, and the old standards were expecting something from me that I got used to, and it wasn’t very much, and now I’m in 6th grade, and there are all these raised expectations, and there’s no gap attention.

Bottomline, everybody is freaking out – teachers, students, and parents.

Last year was the first CC-aligned ELA and math tests. Everybody failed. They rolled out the test before any CC curriculum.

From the point of view of NYC teachers, this seems like a terrorizing regime, doesn’t it?

Yes, because the CC roll-out is rigidly tied to the tests, which are in turn rigidly tied to evaluations of teachers. So the teachers are worried they are automatically going to get a “failure” on that vector.

Another way of saying this is that, if teacher evaluations were taken out of the mix, we’d have a very different roll-out environment. But as it is, teachers are hugely anxious about the possibility that their kids might fail both the city and state tests, and that would give the teacher an automatic “failure” no matter how good their teacher observations are.

So if I’m a special ed teacher of a bunch of kids reading at 4th and 5th grade level even through they’re in 7th grade, I’m particularly worried with the introduction of the new and unknown CC-aligned tests.

So is that really what will happen? Will all these teachers get failing evaluation scores?

That’s the big question mark. I doubt it there will be massive failure though. I think given that the scores were so clustered in the middle/low muddle last year, they are going to add a curve and not allow so many students to fail.

So what you’re pointing out is that they can just redefine failure?

Exactly. It doesn’t actually make sense to fail everyone. Probably 75% of the kids got 2′s or 1′s out of a 4 point scale. What does failure mean when everyone fails? It just means the test was too hard, or that what the kids were being taught was not relevant to the test.

Let’s dig down to the the three topics. As far as you’ve heard from the teachers, what’s good and bad about CC?

My teachers are used to the CC. We’ve rolled out standards-based grading three years ago, so our math and ELA teachers were well adjusted, and our other subject teachers were familiar. The biggest change is what used to be 9th grade math is now expected of the 8th grade. And the biggest complaint I’ve heard is that it’s too much stuff – nobody can teach all that. But that’s always been true about every set of standards.

Did they get rid of anything?

Not sure, because I don’t know what the elementary level CC standards did. There was lots of shuffling in the middle school, and lots of emphasis on algebra and algebraic thinking. Maybe they moved data and stats to earlier grades.

So I believe that my teachers in particular were more prepared. In other schools, where teachers weren’t explicitly being asked to align themselves to standards, it was a huge shock. For them, it used to be solely about Regents, and also Regents exams are very predictable and consistent, so it was pretty smooth sailing.

Let’s move on to curriculum. You mentioned there is no CC-aligned curriculum in NY. I also heard NY state has recently come out against the CC, did you hear that?

Well what I heard is that they previously said they this year’s 9th graders (class of 2017) would be held accountable but now the class of 2022 will be. So they’ve shifted accountability to the future.

What does accountability mean in this context?

It means graduation requirements. You need to pass 5 Regents exams to graduate, and right now there are two versions of some of those exams: one CC-aligned, one old-school. The question is who has to pass the CC-aligned versions to graduate. Now the current 9th grade could take either the CC-aligned or “regular” Regents in math.

I’m going to ask my 9th grade students to take both so we can gather information, even though it means giving them 3 extra hours of tests. Most of my kids pass 2 Regents in 9th grade, 2 in 10th, and 3 in 11th, and then they’re supposed to be done. They only take those Regents tests in senior year that they didn’t pass earlier.

What are the good and bad things about testing?

What’s bad is how much time is lost, as we’ve already said. And also, it’s incredibly stressful. You and I went to school and we had one big college test that was stressful, namely the SAT. In terms of us finishing high school, that was it. For these kids it’s test, test, test, test. I don’t think it’s actually improved the quality of college students across the country. 20 years ago NY was the only one that had extra tests except California achievement tests, which I guess we sometimes took as well.

Another way to say it is that we did take some tests but it didn’t take 5 weeks.

And it wasn’t high stakes for the teacher!

Let’s go straight there: what are the good/bad things for the teachers with all these tests?

Well it definitely makes the teachers more accountable. Even teachers think this: there is a cadre of protected teachers in the city, and the principals didn’t want to take the time to get rid of them, so they’d excess them out of the schools, and they would stay in the system.

Now with testing it has become much more the principal’s responsibility to get rid of bad teachers. The number of floating teachers is going down.

How did they get rid of the floaters?

A lot of different ways. They made them go into the schools, take interviews, they made their quality of life not great, and a lot if them left or retired or found jobs. Principals took up the mantle as well, and they started to do due diligence.

Sounds like the incentive system for over-worked principals was wrong.

Yes, although the reason it became easier for the principals is because now we have data. So if you’re coming in as ineffective and I also have attendance data and observation data, I can add my observational data (subjective albeit rubric based) and do something.

If I may be more skeptical, it sounds like this data gathering was used as a weapon against teachers. There were probably lots of good teachers that have bad numbers attached to them that could get fired if someone wanted them to be fired.

Correct, except those good teachers generally have principals who protect them.

You could give everyone a bad number and then fire the people you want, right?


Is that the goal?

Under Bloomberg it was.

Is there anything else you want to mention? 

I think testing needs to be dialed down but not disappear. Education is a bi-polar pendulum and it never stops in the middle. We’re on an extreme but let’s not get rid of everything. There is a place for testing.

Let’s get our CC standards, curriculum, and testing reasonable and college-aligned and let’s keep it reasonable. Let’s do it with standards across states and let’s make sure it makes sense.

Also, there are some new tests coming out, called PARCC assessments, that are adaptive tests aligned to the CC. They are supposed to replace Regents down the line and be national.

Here’s what bothers me about that. It’s even harder to investigate the experience of the student with adaptive tests.

I’m not sure there’s enough technology to actually do this anyway very soon. For example, we were given $10,000 for 500 student. That’s not going to go far unless it takes 2 weeks to administer the test. But we are investing in our technology this year. For example, I’m looking forward  to buying textbooks and get my updates pushed instead of having to buy new books every year.

Last question. They are redoing the SAT because rich kids are doing so much better. Are they just trying to get in on the test prep game? Because, here’s the thing, there’s no test that can’t be gamed that’s also easy to grade. It’s gotta depend on the letters and grades. We keep trying to shortcut that.

Listen, this is what I tell the kids. What’s going to matter to you is the letter of recommendation, so don’t be an jerk to your fellow students or to the teachers. Next, are you going to be able to meet the minimum requirements? That’s what the SAT is good for. It defines a lower bound.

Is it a good lower bound though?

Well, I define the lower bound as 1000 in total. My kids can target that. It’s a reasonable low bar.

To what extent do your students – mostly inner-city, black girls interested in math and science – suffer under the wholly gamed SAT system?

It serves to give them a point of self-reference with the rest of the country. You have to understand, they, like most kids in the nation, don’t have a conception of themselves outside of their own experience. The SAT serves that purpose. My kids, like many others, have the dream of Ivy League minus the understanding of where they actually stand.

So you’re saying their estimates of their chances are too high?

Yes, oftentimes. They are the big fish in a well-defined pond. At the very least, The SAT helps give them perspective.

Thanks so much for your time Kiri.

The Lede Program: An Introduction to Data Practices

It’s been tough to blog what with jetlag and a new job, and continuing digestive issues stemming from my recent trip, which has prevented me from drinking coffee. It really isn’t until something like this happens that I realize how very much I depend on caffeine for my early morning blogging. I really cherish that addiction like a child. Don’t tell my other kids.

Speaking of my new job, the website for the Lede Program: An Introduction to Data Practices is now live, as is the application. Very cool.

We’re holding information sessions about the program next Monday and Thursday at 1:00pm at the Stabile Center, on the first floor of the Journalism School which is in Pulitzer Hall. Please join us and please spread the news.

We are also still looking for teachers for the program, and we’ve fixed the summer classes, which will be:

  1. Basic computing,
  2. Data and databases,
  3. Algorithms, and
  4. The platform

I’m really excited about all of these but probably most about the last one, where we will investigate biases inherent in data, systems, and platforms and how they affect our understanding of objective truth. Please tell me if you know someone who might be great for teaching any of these, they are intense, seven week classes (either from end of may to mid-July or from mid-July to the end of August) which will meet 3 hours twice a week each.

Categories: data journalism, education

Tia Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia is coming to you from Costa Rica, where she’s been on vacation all week and is officially 100% sunburnt, relaxed, and happy, except for the occasional digestive issue.

To commemorate the occasion and location she’s temporarily changed her name to “Tia Pythia”, but don’t worry, you can expect consistent obnoxious and over-the-top advice coming from her. She hasn’t lost her edge, even in 95 degree heat!

After you enjoy her column (and the copious fruity drinks!) today please don’t forget to:

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

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


Dear Tia Pythia,

I am a graduate student still early in my career, at a university that I am quite happy with (people, subject areas good; geography tolerable for 5 years). However, my (would-be, as-of-yet-unofficial) adviser is moving to a more prestigious, if less outwardly friendly, math department (the way it was described to me is, my current institution is solidly “tier n” while they are considering moving to a “tier n-1″ school). They have offered to bring me with them, but I am nervous about a)whether I could cut it at a more competitive place and b)even if I could, whether 3-4 years of relative misery is worth a “more prestigious” degree.

I’m very excited about the research that my adviser is doing and the field in general, and the prospect of more favorable geography along with a higher “payoff” (in terms of where my degree is from) is attractive, but I’m still seeking sage advice in case I haven’t thought of it in a certain way.

Also, a more direct question: could you have done everything you’ve done since getting your phd if it hadn’t been from Harvard, but from some middle-of-the-road school?

With love,

Future Anxiety Revealed, Troubling Situation


Nice sign-off, and it kind of makes up for a super long letter.

As I’ve written about recently, not all graduate school experiences are the same. Even so, Harvard wasn’t known as the most friendly department and I made it work for me, partly because of the location and the fact that I could make friends outside math. It helped that I grew up in the area and knew people like Nancy from Fair Foods and crucial information like where the best yarn stores were.

I’d suggest visiting the place and seeing if it can work. And importantly, try to make it work. Having an exciting advisor you trust is crucial to the graduate school experience, so I would definitely do my best if I were you to stick with him or her.

In terms of prestige, I definitely think it helps me personally, but I’m never sure how much of that is because I’m a woman – it definitely still seems true that you have to be top-notch to impress people if you’re female whereas men often get the benefit of the doubt.

Also it depends on whether you’re talking to someone inside math or outside math, because outsiders don’t have a definite sense of ranking and also don’t usually care too much. So it also depends on what you want to do with your life after school.

Good luck!

Tia Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve worked for a long time (years) to get one. It hasn’t been a complete waste of time from a social skills and self-improvement point of view, but I haven’t gotten anywhere, and the lack of success has taken its toll.

Logically, I tell myself that it has no bearing on my worth as a human being (compare Isaac Newton and Charlie Sheen for example), that I should enjoy being young and single, and I don’t get as depressed about it as I once did, but we all know that logic isn’t everything. And to clarify, I know I don’t need or am entitled to a girlfriend (I know a lot of guys in my situation do), and my life is satisfying – or getting there – on my own.

I fear that when I’m older, I’ll look back on these years-my most sexually fertile, as well as my most “fun” ones, and see barrenness, when others see great memories with lovers. And I’ll be constantly reminded that they do. I just feel so… tired, or deadened sometimes when thinking about it. What can I do about this?

Draußen vor der Tür

Dear Draußen,

Pardon me for cutting about 85% of your letter, it was just too long. I’m in a short question – short answer kind of mood this morning. Something about the last day of a vacation. And I didn’t cut out the part about Charlie Sheen, because honestly I don’t get it and I’m wondering if readers do and could comment on a possible interpretation.

Look, I have sympathy for your situation. As a guy in physics (part of what I cut), I’m sure you spend most of your time around other guys. It must be tough to meet nice women.

But at the same time, I guess I’m wondering what it is you’ve been doing to try to meet women, and importantly how you’ve talked to them when you’ve met them. From the 85% of your letter that I cut, I can tell you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself and what you should do with your life.

But to be honest, unless someone is already your friend, they probably don’t care about that stuff. At all. If I meet someone who starts talking about that stuff, I find a quick reason to depart.

You need to make sure you have opinions about other things besides yourself. Like, do you read the paper? What do you think about Ukraine? Or the new SAT? Make sure you are not too self-involved and that you have truly interesting opinions and things to say before you meet women. Even better: have ideals. Have plans to fix problems. That’s interesting! That’s possibly even sexy!

Another idea: try reading How Not to Be a Dick: An Everyday Etiquette Guide (hat tip Becky Jaffe). And I’m not saying that because I think you’re a dick (although I’m also not saying you aren’t a dick!) but because it has lots of great points about communication and making sure you’re coming across well. I know I learned something reading it!

One last thing: it doesn’t have to be work. Find something you like doing that lots of women also like doing, and go enjoy yourself. Joy is extremely catchy. Worst case you make some new friends.

Good luck,

Tia Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What do nerdy women talk about at lunch?

I’m a woman who recently started working in an office after a few years of working at home. It’s an educational technology company, and I’m in the unique and fortunate position of being both an educator and a software tester in training.

Most days when I go to the communal kitchen to heat my lunch, many of the women from the education team are engaging in loud discussions about their kids. I’ve started noticing that most of the men educators and people from other departments bury themselves in a book or take their food back to their desks. As a non-parent, I’m sometimes curious about life on the other side, but there’s such a thing as too much information. Today after yet another round of hearing about children’s eating habits, sleep habits, etc, I took my plate and headed for the tech zone for more stimulating conversation.

Any suggestions on things I can ask my coworkers with kids to steer the topic in another direction? I would like to get to know them better and pick their brains on their career paths and aspirations. Or am I better off spending more time with the mostly male tech geeks and absorbing their lingo?

Lunch Uncomfortable Need Conversation Help


First, congrats on the new job, it sounds cool.

Second, to be honest I have never encountered this problem personally because I’m such a freaking loudmouth. I pretty much just barge into conversations and change the topic if I’m bored. I often even tell people they’re really boring and need to spice up their conversation, preferably with sex. Nobody ever seems to complain that they want to talk more about their sleeping or non-sleeping kids. Not sure they like me, but whatevs.

I mean, I don’t literally interrupt the conversation, because I’m not totally rude. But I’ll wait for a good moment and just jump in with something off-topic like the new SAT or Putin or whether House of Cards is too cynical or not cynical enough.

My advice: come prepared with a short list of 4 non-parenting but general topics and see how they fly. I’m guessing they are themselves just bored and talking about that stuff out of habit and will welcome new blood.

Also, engage the men as well, especially if you go with sex.

Good luck!

Tia Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

An acquaintance has started sending emails urging his “friends” to call upon their political leaders to oppose immigration reform. The first time, I assumed his message was spam and deleted it. I replied to the second message saying that I thought his account had been hacked. He replied that he had indeed sent it, explaining his position. After another message, which he forgot to BCC, one of the recipients replied with a well-reasoned rebuttal. The spammer’s response was to remove that person from his contact list.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I was initially confused because:
1. I met this person through an organization that celebrates cultural diversity.
2. His wife and stepson are immigrants.

His reasons for opposing immigration reform:
1. He was forced into early retirement because his employer went out of business.
2. Big business is profiting off cheap illegal labor, taking better paying jobs from Americans.
3. “Those people” are migrating northward, taking over, etc. (His wife is from a country bordering Europe, and the immigrants he opposes come from other places.)

So, the question is, should I ignore the emails, ask him to stop, or attempt to find common ground? I would generally ignore such spam, but I consider his wife a good friend. What kinds of holes can I point out in his argument, like the many forms of corporate greed?

Stop Propagating Antagonizing Messages

Dear SPAM,

Awesome sign-off. Both topical and sensical. Seriously, you should hold a master class in these motherfuckers.

In terms of your quandary, I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d ask him politely to take you off the email list, and I’d never discuss it again with him. I’d continue to be friends with his wife.

Here’s why. He’s gotten it into his head that he lost his job for an abstract political reason. In doing so, he’s made it incredibly personal, and no amount of factual evidence is going to change his stance. You are not going to change it either.

Maybe at some point something will change it, but it will be emotional and deeply personal to him, not something you can effect.

Better yet, just build a filter to send his emails to trash and never think about it again.

Tia Pythia


Dear Tia Pythia,

From your remark of blowing off steam at a conference I remembered this article. Have you read it? It’s very informative and fun.

If conferences like JMM were to have bowls of condoms at the end of the tables where you pick up your badge do you think people would get the idea and pocket a hand full, then use them?

Open Relationships Rock

Dear ORR,

Wait, what article? That’s super unfair.

Tia Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Billionaire money and academic freedom

If you haven’t seen this recent New York Times article by William Broad, entitled Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Sciencethen go take a look. It generalizes to all of scientific research my recent post entitled Billionaire Money in Mathematics.

My favorite part of Broad’s article is the caption of the video at the top, which sums it up nicely:

Funding the Future: As government financing of basic science research has plunged, private donors have filled the void, raising questions about the future of research for the public good.

In his article Broad makes a bunch of great points.

First, the fact that rich people generally ask for research into topics they care about (“personal setting of priorities”) to the detriment of basic research. They want flashy stuff, bang for their buck.

Second, academics interested in getting funding from these rich people have to learn to market themselves. From the article:

The availability of so much well-financed ambition has created a new kind of dating game. In what is becoming a common narrative, researchers like to describe how they begged the federal science establishment for funds, were brushed aside and turned instead to the welcoming arms of philanthropists. To help scientists bond quickly with potential benefactors, a cottage industry has emerged, offering workshops, personal coaching, role-playing exercises and the production of video appeals.

If you think about it, the two issues above are kind of wrapped up together. Flashy academic content goes hand in hand with flashy marketing. Let’s say goodbye to the true nerd who doesn’t button up their cardigan correctly. And I don’t know about you but I like those nerds. My mom is one of them.

This morning I thought of another way to express this issue, from the point of view of the individual scientist or mathematician, that might have profound resonance where the above just sounds annoying.

Namely, I believe that academic freedom itself is at stake. Let me explain.

I’m the last person who would defend our current tenure system. It’s awful for women, especially those who want kids, and it often breeds a kind of arrogant laziness post-tenure. Even so, there are good things about it, and one of them is academic freedom.

And although theoretically you can have academic freedom without tenure, it is certainly easier with it (example from this piece: “In Oklahoma, a number of state legislators attempted to have Anita Hill fired from her university position because of her testimony before the U.S. Senate. If not for tenure, professors could be attacked every time there’s a change in the wind.”).

But as we’ve seen recently, tenure-track positions are quickly declining in number, even as the number of teaching positions is growing. This is the academic analog of how we’ve seen job growth in the US but it’s majority shitty jobs. And as I’ve predicted already, this trend is surely going to continue as we scale education through MOOCs.

The dwindling tenured positions means there are increasing number of people trying to do research dependent upon outside grants and funding, and without the safety net of tenure. These people often lose their jobs when their funding flags, as we’ve recently seen at Columbia.

Now let’s put these two trends together. We’ve got fewer and fewer tenure jobs, which are precariously dependent on outside funding, and we’ve got rich people funding their own tastes and proclivities.

Where does academic freedom shake out in that picture? I’m going to say nowhere.

Categories: education, math, math education

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