Occupy Summer School starts today

I’m very excited for the first day of Occupy Summer School. It will run for three weeks, every morning, in downtown Brooklyn, so I’m not sure how much blogging I’ll be doing. Hopefully I’ll find time to document some of what’s happening. We’re very excited about the line-up, and we have high hopes for the final event.

Today we introduce the kids to ourselves and Occupy, we talk about the next three weeks, we ask them to introduce themselves to us, we ask what they are planning to get out of the experience, and of course we eat donuts.

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Aunt Pythia’s Advice

Readers!! Dear friends! Aunt Pythia is overwhelmed with happiness. She is currently sitting in the middle of the woods scribbling away inefficiently on an android tablet, doing her best to deliver a knock-out advice column for your reading pleasure. It’s absolutely nuts that she can accomplish this fear considering her environment, but that’s just how much she loves you.


Definitely not as hot as Manhattan.

Please enjoy being rustic with Aunt Pythia!

Oh, and before you leave,

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 dream of composing the perfect Aunt Pythia question, complete with awesome sign-off? I guess you don’t, but maybe you have the same issue with Dan Savage?

That’s my problem. I just can’t stop obsessing and find myself so jealous of the problems of others. Why can’t I be “an intellectual property lawyer, who is launching a big data business with a former colleague/lover, who has just given up lesbianism and decided to become a man, and who can’t quite decide on how to deal with her residual feelings of attraction for said business partner”?

Or, what about wanting to be able to write “I’m completing my junior year majoring in Clown and, while I would love to go to graduate school, just feel I don’t measure up against my classmates who are so ahead they’re already working on Advanced Buffoonery  and researching theoretical foundations integrating hijinks, pratfalls, and farce. I feel like a Paul Reubens amidst all these future Lucys. Can I make it?”

With awesome problems like those, how can my mundane life make it onto the hallowed pixels of an AP page? I’m afraid I’m going to start creating a mini-crisis in my life, just to have some entertaining material for you. Help!

Lousy Sign-off Doesn’t Trump Really Interesting Person


I just can’t believe I figured out how to copy and paste on a tablet. Very excited over here.

Great sign off by the way. I get the impression it’s accurate as well.

Here’s the thing. You don’t need complicated problems. Asking how to feel happy or even non suicidal in the midst of everyday life is already hard and interesting. And I would prefer genuine kindness over being entertained any day.

As for the question of whether I dream of asking question, no. I have always wanted to give advice more than ask it. Probably a personality defect but there it is.

Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia,

I have a math question. I am writing a series of short stories, based the Many-worlds theory of Quantum Mechanics. The stories postulate (in contrast to current theory, science fiction, you know) that there is a way to pass information between universes. Naturally in an infinite number of universes, some, an infinite number, use this technology, like painting, photography, writing, mosaics, film, TV, and the Internet, for porn.

My questions is, if the resolution of every quantum event creates at least two new universes, what is the cardinality of that infinity? It seems like aleph-null but it’s been a long time since my last legitimate use of infinities.

No cats were harmed in the forming of this question.

Slim Odds And Possible

Dear SOAP,

Is this the day for weird questions? I mean don’t you need to tell me what a quantum event is and how often to expect a quantum event? Does it happen every time someone passes porn between universes? Even if that is the case I would need to know there are a positive number of horny people in existence.

Unless I am being dumb, I don’t have sufficient information here.

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

I think I’m in love with my best friend. She told me about a year ago that she wasn’t interested in romantic relationships because her ex-boyfriend hurt her / she hurt him / they had a bad breakup. I haven’t told her my feelings, because of a variety of reasons, including I wanted to tell her in person (we live on opposite coasts of the US), I don’t want to hurt her (she is going through some serious stuff right now, and I don’t want to add to that), I have literally zero romantic experience and I don’t want to fuck things up with her (I kind of feel like I’m going to fuck up my first few relationships), and last but not least I’m bad at talking. We’re going to college together next fall. I want to tell her at some point in the future, because of some kind of honesty idea and also it seems unfair to try and get rid of these feelings without asking her. What do you think I should do?

Having Equanimous Love Problem

Dear HELP,

First of all thanks for the perfect sign off and straight forward letter. Although not sure you are equanimous.

Next, believe me, you are in love. No need to say you think maybe you are. Babe, you got it bad.

Third, you want to tell her because love demands it of us. It has nothing to do with a sense of honesty or fairness. Love has its own logic, or illogic, and we are slaves to it. That’s OK.

Seeing as you asked, I say go for it. Make it happen my friend. Which is to say: tell her you love her in a dramatic and romantic and absolutely unmistakable way. Be that guy who really spills out his guts and lays it on the table.

You know what there isn’t enough of nowadays? I’ll tell you what. Gut spilling. We are all so careful not to offend or appear vulnerable we forget that none of that really matters. What really matters is living life fully and taking chances and going out on a limb and being the person you always wanted to be.

And here’s the thing about it. It’s not really a risk. If she says no you will be crushed, to be sure, but in fact you will be crushed if you say nothing. It will just take longer and feel less courageous. Also she’s your best friend so I imagine we can trust her not to be cruel.

Tell me how it goes, and good luck!

Aunty P

P.s. nobody has experience at your age.
P.P.s. if you’re worried about talking then write a letter of a song or a poem.
P.P.P.s. ignore her bad ex. Everyone gets over their bad exes eventually. Plus it’s been a year. Don’t ignore her current problems though. Just tell her how much you want to be there for her.


Aunt Pythia,

We clearly have a long way to go still for getting more girls and women into STEM careers, but there has been a lot of progress as well. For example, my department has a pretty M/F balanced group of faculty and grad students. I also notice there are various programs and events for women and minorities in mathematics, which appear to build some lasting professional relationships and you know, like,  friendships.

My gripe is that many of these programs are *exclusively* intended for women, leaving minority men, especially black men, out in the cold while universities are patting themselves on the back for publicly fulfilling their diversity initiatives. I don’t think there’s a great conspiracy behind this, just that there aren’t very man black men in STEM fields, particularly math, to let everyone know- Hey! We’re here too!!

Comparatively, women, black women, uh literally any other group you could reasonably get higher education statistics on, is doing better than we are. Most of these programs aren’t helping us, and I know of none specifically designed for us. You probably know the statistics better than I do, but according to this article [http://chronicle.com/article/Black-Man-in-the-Lab/149565/] from 1992-2012 there were only 203 black men that got math PhDs. Wait, in 20 FUCKING YEARS?? Please be a typo. One black guy per year in the ENTIRE COUNTRY has been getting a math PhD for two decades…? JESUS CHRIST ON A STICK, THAT’S SOME FUCKERY, PLAIN AND SIMPLE. No really, I have to be making some kind of error somewhere.

Of course, these are just averages; the actual count probably is trending upward and probably increasingly so from 2012-2015. JUST NO, VOICE OF STEADINESS AND REASON, TODAY YOU CAN STFU, YOUR SERVICES ARE NOT NEEDED. Why? For one, these numbers include graduates of historically black colleges and universities, which are disproportionately represented. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but if a sizeable chunk of the 203 PhDs are concentrated in these schools, then of course the rest have fewer than expected PhDs produced, and the baseline was already at WTF.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but as black guy interested in math, I don’t want to go to the black school I want to go to the math school; no offense to Howard, but I’m aiming for Harvard. The article then says, for all STEM degrees combined, there was an upward trend from black men making up 1% of all PhDs awarded in ’92 to 2% in ’12. If you have no soul, you can convince people of improvement by saying it doubled, but it’s still really, really fucked. So (finally) my question is: Given the obvious need, why isn’t there a program similar to Edge for men in math from underrepresented groups?

P.S. Who lets the mathematicians of the African diaspora website remain on the internet? It’s hella embarrassing.


Dear Randomblackdude,

I’m with you. Those are some outrageously low numbers. And I don’t know what resources there are out there but clearly not enough. Maybe my readers will fill us in. Also agreed about people who deliberately mislead with statistics having no soul.

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: Uncategorized

What kind of happiness should we strive for?

Some of you may have stumbled across the New York Times’ recent Room For Debate, addressing the pursuit of happiness. Short and insufficient summary:

  1. William Davies: Once you focus on optimizing happiness, you will be asking for trouble. At the individual level, optimizing for happiness will be used against us at work. At a higher level, it will be a form of social control.
  2. Bina Agarwal: We need both objective (GDP, health) indicators and subjective (happiness, satisfaction polls) to measure the progress of nations.
  3. Barbara Ehrenreich: Happiness scores can be easily tampered with, and rarely gets at the concept of accomplishment of goals.
  4. Sonja Lyubomirsky: Don’t measure happiness too much, but don’t forget to measure happiness, because it’s good for you.

I found the conversation frustrating. I’ve been thinking about happiness a bit lately, and it strikes me that the above conversation is entirely muddled because of its lack of precision. There are different kinds of happiness, and only the third debater, Barbara Ehrenreich, really touches on that.

So, at the very least, there’s hedonic pleasure, and then there’s eudaimonic pleasure, which basically correspond to short-term versus long-term. Hedonic joy comes when you see a naked body or you eat doritos. It can also happen when you see your child laugh or enjoy the smell of garlic. In other words, it doesn’t have to be bad for you, but it is a form of short-term sensation.

Eudaimonic joy happens when you feel the pleasure of some kind of longer-term accomplishment. Aristotle invented this concept, deeming happiness vulgar, and stressing that not all desires are worth pursuing as, even though some of them may yield pleasure, they would not produce wellness. We experience eudaimonic joy when we clean our house, when we gain understanding of something that was elusive, or when we spend “quality time” with our friends and loved ones. It’s anything that gives us pleasure and contributes to our goals.

Now that we are equipped with these terms, the above debate is easier to parse. And of course the debaters weren’t given very much space for their arguments, so I’m not suggesting they don’t know this stuff, but it’s still helpful for us readers.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s point is that hedonic pleasure, being fleeting, is also easy to manipulate; at the same time, when we are asked whether we’re happy, we often interpret it to be some combination of those two kinds of happiness, with possibly random weights assigned to each. Right after I get off a roller coaster I’m more likely to be thinking hedonic pleasure, right after I listen to a poetry reading, or take a nap, maybe I’ll be more interested in the eudaimonic kind.

William Davies, on the other hand, is mostly discussing hedonic happiness, because in terms of brain chemicals, we can measure the stimulation of the pleasure centers of our brains, and we can manipulate people based on those measurements. Davies imagines a world where our corporate masters have a perfect view into our brains and have figured out how to stimulate our pleasure centers so that we are maximally “productive.” This approach is deliberately unrelated to our eudaimonic pleasure, because it’s not focused on our long-term goals, but rather the goals of our employer.

Bina Agarwal seems to want to understand eudaimonic happiness but is making do with the random mix, and Sonja Lyubomirsky seems to confuse “trying too hard to be happy” with focusing on hedonic happiness.

We could get better data and better debates around “happiness as a thing to strive for or not” if we distinguished between short-term happiness and long-term happiness. It’s not that hard to do, and it obviously matters.

Categories: Uncategorized

What is Sidewalks Labs’ business model?

You might have heard about Sidewalk Labs, which is backed by Google and plans to repurpose phone booths all over New York City as wifi hubs. They are also planning to install large advertising screens on the sides of the phone booths to display dynamic advertising to passersby. A few comments and questions.

  • When you use that wifi, they can track what you do.
  • Even if you don’t use it, if you walk by with a wifi-enabled device (smart phone), the phone booth will sense your device and tag you.
  • Presumably this is not charity. They will expect to make ad revenue with their screens.
  • Best guess: they will tailor the advertisements depending on who is walking by and what they’re doing.
  • The overall negotiation then is that we are willing to exchange free wifi for having our experience in a public space tracked by a private company. I’m not sure we are all thinking that’s a good deal.
  • They plan to do it in other cities, using street lamps and bus shelters as well.
  • Prepare to enter into a realm of existence one step closer to Blade Runner.

Categories: Uncategorized

Advertisement or… negotiation?

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of meeting Anna Bernasek and Dan Mongan, who came to the Alt Banking group meeting to tell us about their book All You Can Pay: How Companies Use Our Data To Empty Our Wallets.

While they were discussing their book, the topic of online advertisement naturally came up. Dan and Anna made an interesting point in that discussion which I’ve been chewing on ever since. Namely, they provocatively suggested that we should never use the word “advertising” to describe the complicated and sophisticated process of tailored and targeted offers to an individual internet browser. Instead, we should call it a “negotiation.” Let me explain their reasoning.

They started by introducing the concept of a “consumer surplus.” This is the difference between what a given consumer would be willing to pay for a product versus what the price actually is for that product. If the difference is positive, the consumer buys the product and has a theoretical bit of “extra” money in their wallet, which corresponds to the happy fact that the price was lower than their maximum price. If the difference is negative, the consumer doesn’t buy the product because it’s too expensive for them.

Does that make sense? For me it only kind of makes sense. I mean, it makes quite a bit of sense for certain situations, like when I’m buying something I don’t actually need, out of funds I consider limited but discretionary. So, for example, after my soggy experience a couple of weeks ago I threw away my faulty tent, so I’m looking at buying a new tent, but then again I’m not going camping any time soon, so the price has to be right.

Here’s an important example where it doesn’t make as much sense. If I’m poor and I need a car to go to work, and I know I have to borrow money to buy the car, then the amount of the loan is less important than the fact that I can get a loan in the first place. The “consumer surplus” is less obvious when it’s a matter of debt rather than cash, and when it’s a desperately needed purchase rather than discretionary.

Anyhoo, let’s imagine consumer surplus to be a thing that people consider useful. The point Is, big data companies are getting better and better and determining or at least approximating what a given consumer’s surplus is, and making offers accordingly.

So, if you’re on a platform where there are advertisements, the algorithms behind those offers might infer that you have a certain amount of money to spend on a car or hotel, and might offer you certain models of cars with or without leather seats, or hotels in certain neighborhoods priced in a certain range, to squeeze out your consumer surplus. Yes, there might be cheaper versions of these things that you’d be happy with, and that would save you money, but the algorithm has determined your spending power, which is all they care about.

Thus, instead of an advertisement, which sounds like something we imagine many many people see, this is a personalized negotiation, just to you personally, and crucially, you don’t see what other people are being offered. So it’s a one-sided negotiation with enormous information asymmetries.

Note this is the opposite of what we’d expect in the “free market,” where all the offers are on the table and you get to choose the one with the lowest price. Partly we ignore that vision because many of the platforms we now spend time on are more or less monopolistic in nature, and partly it’s because of the nature of the auction system of advertising: the “ad” for a more expensive hotel room, that’s still in your price range, will win an auction because it is worth more to the seller.

I think it’s a pretty good distinction, although I’m not sure “online sale negotiations” is a catchy enough phrase to replace “online ads” any time soon.

Categories: Uncategorized

When does an interview become free consulting?

I recently had a weird and negative experience applying for a job.

I went for standard the day-long interview, and answered a bunch of questions, and met a bunch of people, maybe 9. In one of the interviews, they asked me how I would approach some of the data questions they were working on, and I gave them some spur-of-the-moment advice. In one case I exactly outlined the approach they were actually taking. All this is fine, and to be expected.  In fact I felt like the interview had gone well, and I had liked and been liked by most of the people I’d met.

Then, when I was about to leave for the day, they told me they wanted to send me “homework.” This is not something they had mentioned to me beforehand, but I was exhausted from the long day and I responded in a vague way, something like, “um, OK, well, I’ll take a look.”

When I eventually got it, the homework was very open-ended and very very hard. In fact I was guessing that it was probably an NP-complete problem, although I didn’t look it up (although I’m sure I could have, which is also weird). Moreover, it was directly relevant to the company’s business.

I felt like it was a fair question for them to have me work on if I had been hired, but it seemed too much to ask for me to work on it before then. Moreover, I was (and still am!) working very hard on my book, and I’d already given them a full day of my time. It seemed like they wanted me to give them free consulting in addition to applying for a job. I decided to write back to them and tell them I was very busy, and that I’d rather not do this homework “unless it was a dealbreaker.”

Here’s what happened next. First, the person who had sent me the homework told me it wasn’t a dealbreaker, and that I’d hear back soon. Then, nothing happened. Nothing at all. I didn’t hear from them for weeks, so I figured that was all the news I needed to know.

I finally wrote to a friend of mine who worked there just to say, hey, no hard feelings, I hope you’re well. By then I had totally given up on the job, but he was curious as to why. After telling him the story, the next day I got an email from his boss’s boss explaining that he had been waiting for me to go ahead and do the homework, and that he was disappointed I hadn’t been willing to. So it had been a dealbreaker after all.

So my question to you kind folks is this: when does an interview, and homework afterwards, become free consulting? What are the standards? Do you think I should have done the homework? Do you think it was unreasonable for them to ask of me? Or do you think it was OK for them to ask me but not OK for them to mislead me about whether it was a requirement?

Categories: Uncategorized

Data mining children’s data

I was interviewed for an article entitled No Child Left Un-Mined? Student Privacy At Risk In The Age Of Big Data by journalist Farai Chideya, who writes for The Intercept along with Glenn Greenwald and other impressive people.

Here’s the article, I think it came out pretty well and I’d be grateful for your thoughts.

Categories: Uncategorized

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