Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia welcomes you after one week away celebrating her middle son’s and the nation’s birthday. She’s not sure she will be able to incorporate such a topic into the Q&A so she’s jumping on the opportunity to spread the love emanating from this video (hat tip Mike Hill):

It comes from this webpage entitled Putting the Crotch Into Crochet which you really need to check out if the above video titillates, which really how could it not.

To business! Aunt Pythia is doing a speed round today, after grabbing her oldest from a JFK redeye and before making said son his favorite breakfast of banana and chocolate chip pancakes.

You ready? Strap on your seat belts, we’re still driving the luxury Winnebego!

Without further ado, let’s begin. And please, after enjoying the on-board cheese and cracker snacks, do your best 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,

Seven years ago I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s grow in back four times since, once during chemotherapy. Doctors consistently toss around words like “inevitable” and “incurable” when talking about my tumor and its recurrence.

But still, I have probably at least a decade, maybe more, depending on how medical science goes. And that’s a long time to spend alone.

But when I go out on dates, I feel like I’m leading women on by not disclosing my potential expiration date. When in a relationship would you recommend revealing this key fact?

Not Left Brained

Dear NLB,

First of all, I am sorry this is happening to you, it sucks.

Second of all, this is your private information, and you have no obligation to tell people private stuff before you’re ready. When you go on a date with someone, that’s merely an offer to spend an evening with someone, and most people don’t think beyond that 4 hour obligation, nor should you.

At the same time, you do have the obligation to not mislead, as everyone does. So third of all, that means that you wouldn’t want to start living with someone or otherwise get serious without them knowing your status.

I imagine this kind of thing comes up almost immediately in relationships, possible even as soon as the first date, when a woman might ask you if you want children. My suggestion is to tell her, or anyone else mentioning long term plans, that you don’t have long-term plans for anything, nor are you expecting to. That is sufficiently vague – yet also sufficiently transparent – so nobody would accuse you of being misled. Women who want kids, say, or to get married, will interpret that appropriately. It will also sort out people who hang out with you simply to enjoy your company, which I assume is what you’re going for.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Auntie P,

I’m a woman in a graduate program which is heavily female-dominated (so not math, clearly). Like most grad students, I’ve got some dear friends and some real stinkers in my cohort, with plenty in between.

I was having lunch this week with one of the newer students, “Belle”, in the program. Ostensibly this was a working lunch, but somehow Belle managed to squeeze in the fact that she was in a new and exciting relationship with another woman in the program, “Linda”.

The problem is that I’m much better friends with Linda than I am with Belle, and Linda isn’t out. To anyone (or at least anyone in the program), including me. Well, until now.

How do I handle this? Do I gently inform Belle that Linda is closeted and she needs to get her approval before outing her, even to her friends? Or do I hope that she notices on her own what she’s doing, and notices before she does something damaging? Also, when I’m around Linda, do I continue to act as if I know nothing about her sexuality? (Honestly, this isn’t that hard, since her personal life is not something she brings up much.) Also, when I’m in a social situation where both of them are present, do I act as if I don’t know they’re together (and be awkward towards Belle) or as if I do (thus putting Linda in a bind)?

Closets Inform Every Lunch I Take Out

Dear CIELITO,

Nice sign-off! I had to use a Spanish dictionary, but I’m impressed.

OK so first I’ll give you good advice and then I’ll tell you what I’d do.

The good advice is to stay out of it and pretend you are oblivious. It’s really none of your business and you don’t want to get in the middle of something potentially messy.

The thing I’d do is tell Linda what happened, so she can address it with Belle if in fact it’s not what she wants. After all, Linda is your friend and she should know what’s going on.

Tell me what happens!

Auntie P

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I still wonder if brute force, generate and test is a viable method for discovering good parameter settings for a system. I don’t like how long the programs take to run, but they seem to provide good information. I assume that you would have a better idea, just because you probably would be in the “neat” perspective, while I am definitely, and in long standing, a “scruffy”.

Lost in Space

Dear Lost,

I have practically no idea what you’re talking about but I like people who call themselves both lost and a scruffy. As for brute force optimization, yes go ahead but remember to have a clean data set to test your parameters on, because you’re surely overfitting.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

To what extent are women obliged to “stand and fight” when working in fields that are male-dominated and where they feel slighted on a regular basis? I am tired of seeing people to go my male colleagues for information in which I have superior expertise, for example. And god forbid you should be a woman working in computational/applied mathematics since applied math is already looked down upon. Even male TA’s are disrespectful.

On the one hand, if all the women are pushed away, we have no women to serve as role models for the next generation. On the other, each of us has only one life to live. I feel that I deserve to be happy, deserve to be respected, and so on.

I am pretty fed up. I don’t want to become one of the bitter and bitchy ones, and I don’t want to give up my career goals. Any thoughts?

Woman in Computing

Dear WiC,

There is absolutely no obligation at all to stand and fight, by any woman or man, whatsoever. It’s a silly argument that one should role model for a position that’s miserable. It’s almost ludicrously bait and switch, in fact.

Having said that, there’s usually a reason that people are competitive with each other. In business it’s almost always about money (or status, but those two are highly correlated). In academics it’s all about status, and men do it to each other as well, although the fight is dirtier when it’s directed towards women.

So, I’m not sure this will help, but if you see the fighting and competition as a direct product of the system, it might help you to take it less personally. Personally, I’ve been in so many different contexts, and I exist as such a threat against other people (both men and women), that I recognize sexist pushback almost as a sport (how does sexist pushback work in journalism? Oh, that’s how).

I’m not saying it never gets to me, because it does, but not for long. Because in the end it’s an external distraction, and staying external is always a mistake, just look at the dieting industry.

My best advice is to keep your eyes on the prize: figure out what your agenda is, and go for it. And don’t be surprised that, as you get closer to the goal, people will be more threatened, not less, and they will embarrass themselves with bad behavior. Don’t get distracted, because you have to stay internally focused.

In other words, it’s not about some vague obligation to society. It’s about a very real obligation towards yourself, which you set.

Good luck!

Aunt P

——

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

 

Categories: Aunt Pythia

The Lede Program students are rocking it

Yesterday was the end of the first half of the Lede Program, and the students presented their projects, which were really impressive. I am hoping some of them will be willing to put them up on a WordPress site or something like that in order to showcase them and so I can brag about them more explicitly. Since I didn’t get anyone’s permission yet, let me just say: wow.

During the second half of the program the students will do another project (or continue their first) as homework for my class. We’re going to start planning for that on the first day, so the fact that they’ve all dipped their toes into data projects is great. For example, during presentations yesterday I heard the following a number of times: “I spent most of my time cleaning my data” or “next time I will spend more time thinking about how to drill down in my data to find an interesting story”. These are key phrases for people learning lessons with data.

Since they are journalists (I’ve learned a thing or two about journalists and their mindset in the past few months) they love projects because they love deadlines and they want something they can add to their portfolio. Recently they’ve been learning lots of geocoding stuff, and coming up they’ll be learning lots of algorithms as well. So they’ll be well equipped to do some seriously cool shit for their final project. Yeah!

In addition to the guest lectures I’m having in The Platform, I’ll also be reviewing prerequisites for the classes many of them will be taking in the Computer Science department in the fall, so for example linear algebra, calculus, and basic statistics. I just bought them all a copy of How to Lie with Statistics as well as The Cartoon Guide to Statistics, both of which I adore. I’m also making them aware of Statistics Done Wrong, which is online. I am also considering The Cartoon Guide to Calculus, which I have but I haven’t read yet.

Keep an eye out for some of their amazing projects! I’ll definitely blog about them once they’re up.

Great news: for-profit college Corinthian to close

I’ve talked before about the industry of for-profit colleges which exists largely to game the federal student loan program. They survive almost entirely on federal student loans of their students, while delivering terrible services and worthless credentials.

Well, good news: one of the worst of the bunch is closing its doors. Corinthian College, Inc (CCI) got caught lying about job placement of its graduates (in some cases, they said 100% when the truth was closer to 0%). They were also caught advertising programs they didn’t actually have.

But here’s what interests me the most, which I will excerpt from the California Office of the Attorney General:

CCI’s predatory marketing efforts specifically target vulnerable, low-income job seekers and single parents who have annual incomes near the federal poverty line. In internal company documents obtained by the Department of Justice, CCI describes its target demographic as “isolated,” “impatient,” individuals with “low self-esteem,” who have “few people in their lives who care about them” and who are “stuck” and “unable to see and plan well for future.”

I’d like to know more about how they did this. I’m guessing it was substantially online, and I’m guessing they got help from data warehousing services.

After skimming the complaint I’m afraid it doesn’t include such information, although it does say that the company advertised programs it didn’t have and then tricked potential students into filling out information about them so CCI could follow up and try to enroll them. Talk about predatory advertising!

Update: I’m getting some information by checking out their recent marketing job postings.

Categories: feedback loop, modeling

Zephyr Teachout to visit Alt Banking this Sunday

I’m excited to announce that Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor who is running against Andrew Cuomo for Governor of New York, will be coming to speak to the Alternative Banking group next Sunday, July 13th, from 3pm-5pm in the usual place, Room 409 of the International Affairs Building at 118th and Amsterdam. More about Alt Banking on our website.

Title: Teachout-Wu vs. Cuomo-Hochul in the Democratic Primary in New York!

Description: Come hear candidate Teachout talk about her anti-corruption trust-busting campaign against Governor Cuomo.

Background: Teachout is an antitrust and media expert who served as the Director of Internet organizing for the 2004 Howard Dean Presidential Campaign. She co-founded A New Way Forward, an organization built to break up the power of big banks. Teachout was the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation. More here.

If we have time after talking to Zephyr we will discuss Stiglitz’s article,  The Myth Of America’s Golden Age.

Please make time to come hear Zephyr, and please spread the word.

Categories: #OWS

What constitutes evidence?

My most recent Slate Money podcast with Felix Salmon and Jordan Weissmann was more than usually combative. I mean, we pretty much always have disagreements, but Friday it went beyond the usual political angles.

Specifically, Felix thought I was jumping too quickly towards a dystopian future with regards to medical data. My claim was that, now that the ACA has motivated hospitals and hospital systems to keep populations healthy – a good thing in itself – we’re seeing dangerous side-effects involving the proliferation of health profiling and things like “health scores” attached to people much like we now have credit scores. I’m worried that such scores, which are created using data not covered under HIPAA, will be used against people when they try to get a job.

Felix asked me to point to evidence of such usage.

Of course, it’s hard to do that, partly because it’s just the beginning of such data collection – although the FTC’s recent report pointed to data warehouses that already puts people into categories such as “diabetes interest” – and also because it’s proprietary all the way down. In other words, web searches and the like are being legally collected and legally sold and then it’s legal to use risk scores or categories to filter job applications. What’s illegal is to use HIPAA-protected data such as disability status to remove someone from consideration for a job, but that’s not what’s happening.

Anyhoo, it’s made me think. Am I a conspiracy theorist for worrying about this? Or is Felix lacking imagination if he requires evidence to believe it? Or some combination? This is super important to me because if I can’t get Felix, or someone like Felix, to care about this issue, I’m afraid it will be ignored.

This kind of thing came up a second time on that same show, when Felix complained that the series of articles (for example this one from NY Magazine) talking about money laundering in New York real estate also lacked evidence. But that’s also tricky since the disclosure requirements on real estate are not tight. In other words, they are avoiding collecting evidence of money laundering, so it’s hard to complain there’s a lack of data. From my perspective the journalists investigating this article did a good job finding examples of laundering and showing it was easy to set up (especially in Delaware). But Felix wasn’t convinced.

It’s a general question I have, actually, and I’m glad to be involved with the Lede Program because it’s actually my job to think about this kind of thing, especially in the context of journalism. Namely, when do we require data – versus anecdotal evidence – to believe in something? And especially when the data is being intentionally obscured?

Critical Questions for Big Data by danah boyd & Kate Crawford

I’m teaching a class this summer in the Lede Program, starting in mid-July, which is called The Platform. Here’s the course description:

This course begins with the idea that computing tools are the products of human ingenuity and effort. They are never neutral and carry with them the biases of their designers and their design process. “Platform studies” is a new term used to describe investigations into these relationships between computing technologies and the creative or research products that they help to generate. How you understand how data, code, and algorithms affect creative practices can be an effective first step toward critical thinking about technology. This will not be purely theoretical, however, and specific case studies, technologies, and project work will make the ideas concrete.

Since my first class is coming soon, I’m actively thinking about what to talk about and which readings to assign. I’ve got wonderful guest lecturers coming, and for the most part the class will focus on those guest lecturers and their topics, but for the first class I want to give them an overview of a very large subject.

I’ve decided that danah boyd and Kate Crawford’s recent article, Critical Questions for Big Data, is pretty much perfect for this goal. I’ve read and written a lot about big data but even so I’m impressed by how clearly and comprehensively they have laid out their provocations. And although I’ve heard many of the ideas and examples before, some of them are new to me, and are directly related to the theme of the class, for example:

Twitter and Facebook are examples of Big Data sources that offer very poor archiving and search functions. Consequently, researchers are much more likely to focus on something in the present or immediate past – tracking reactions to an election, TV finale, or natural disaster – because of the sheer difficulty or impossibility of accessing older data.

Of course the students in the Lede are journalists, not academic researchers, which the article mostly addresses, and moreover they are not necessarily working with big data per se, but even so they are increasingly working with social media data, and moreover they are probably covering big data even if they don’t directly analyze it. So I think it’s still relevant to them. Or another way to express this is that one thing we will attempt to do in class is examine the extent to which their provocations are relevant.

Here’s another gem, directly related to the Facebook experiment I discussed yesterday:

As computational scientists have started engaging in acts of social science, there is a tendency to claim their work as the business of facts and not interpretation. A model may be mathematically sound, an experiment may seem valid, but as soon as a researcher seeks to understand what it means, the process of interpretation has begun. This is not to say that all interpretations are created equal, but rather that not all numbers are neutral.

In fact, what with this article and that case study, I’m pretty much set for my first day, after combining them with a discussion of the students’ projects and some related statistical experiments.

I also hope to invite at least one of the authors to come talk to the class, although I know they are both incredibly busy. Danah boyd, who recently came out with a book called It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teensalso runs the Data & Society Research Institute, a NYC-based think/do tank focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from data-centric technological development. I’m hoping she comes and talks about the work she’s starting up there.

Thanks for a great case study, Facebook!

I’m super excited about the recent “mood study” that was done on Facebook. It constitutes a great case study on data experimentation that I’ll use for my Lede Program class when it starts mid-July. It was first brought to my attention by one of my Lede Program students, Timothy Sandoval.

My friend Ernest Davis at NYU has a page of handy links to big data articles, and at the bottom (for now) there are a bunch of links about this experiment. For example, this one by Zeynep Tufekci does a great job outlining the issues, and this one by John Grohol burrows into the research methods. Oh, and here’s the original research article that’s upset everyone.

It’s got everything a case study should have: ethical dilemmas, questionable methodology, sociological implications, and questionable claims, not to mention a whole bunch of media attention and dissection.

By the way, if I sound gleeful, it’s partly because I know this kind of experiment happens on a daily basis at a place like Facebook or Google. What’s special about this experiment isn’t that it happened, but that we get to see the data. And the response to the critiques might be, sadly, that we never get another chance like this, so we have to grab the opportunity while we can.

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