Cathy O’Neil blogs at Mathbabe

Cathy O’Neil is blogging!  Cathy was my classmate in graduate school — we’d meet once a week and she’d drag me through Milne’s survey on abelian varieties, which I was optimistically trying to read without knowing what a scheme was.  A theorem of hers appeared uncredited (sorry, Cathy) in this post, where it guarantees the maximal isotropy of the global cohomology group with respect to the quadratic form studied by Poonen and Rains.  Lately, Cathy’s been in the private sector, working in both the financial industry and the Internet economy.  If you know her, you’d probably guess that her blog is big on strongly held opinions and light on pulled punches.  Your guess would be right!  Here’s Cathy on working at a hedge fund:

Most of the quants at D.E. Shaw were immigrant men.  In fact I was the only woman quant when I joined, and there were quite a few quants, maybe 50, and I was also one of the only Americans.  What nearly all these men had in common was a kind of constant, nervous hunger, almost like a daily fear that they wouldn’t have enough to eat.  At first I thought of them as having a serious chip on their shoulder, like they were the kind of guy that didn’t make the football team in high school and were still trying to get over that.  And I still think there’s an element of something as simple as that, but it goes deeper.  One of my colleagues from Eastern Europe said to me once, “Cathy, my grandparents were coal miners.  I don’t want my kids to be coal miners.  I don’t want my grandchildren to be coal miners.  I don’t want anybody in my family to ever be a coal miner again.”   So, what, you’re going to amass enough money so that no descendent of yours ever needs to get a job?  Something like that.

But here’s the thing, that fear was real to him.  It was that earnest, heartfelt anxiety that convinced me that I was really different from these guys.  The difference was that, firstly, they were acting as if a famine was imminent, and they’d need to scrounge up food or starve to death, and secondly, that only their nuclear family was worth saving.  This is where I really lost them.  I mean, I get the idea of acts of desperation to survive, but I don’t get how you choose who to save and who to let die.  However, it was this kind of us-against-them mentality that prevailed and informed the approach to making money.

Once you understand the mentality, it’s easier to understand the “dumb money” phrase.  It simply means, we are smarter than those idiots, let’s use our intelligence to anticipate dumb peoples’ trades and take their money.  It is our right as intelligent, imminently starving people to do this.

I also like yesterday’s post, where Cathy speculates about people with happy childhoods and people with unhappy childhoods, and asks whether marriages should contain one of each.

Oh yeah, and for the people who don’t like when I post about women in math, try reading Cathy’s blog — you’ll hate it!  Here’s her inspirational speech for women in math:

Hi, I’m your unemployed role model.  I thought of not coming here today since, after all, I’m unemployed, and what kind of role model does that make me?  Actually it makes me a good one, and here’s why.  That job I left wasn’t good enough for me.  I didn’t get fired, I quit (although plenty of great people I know have been laid off so that’s no proof of anything).  The truth is, I deserve a job that I really like, where I’m challenged to grow and to learn and to do my best and I’m rewarded for doing so.  After all, I have a super power, which is mathematics.  So the reason I’m saying this is that you do too.  All of you have a superpower, which is mathematics.  You all deserve to work at good jobs that you actually enjoy- and if the jobs you have turn out to be bad, or if the become bad for some reason, then quit!  Get another one!  Get a better one!  I actually got a job offer on the plane over here yesterday (true!).  I know I’m going to get a good job, even in this economy, because I can do something other people actually regard as magical.  Mathematical training and thinking is something that everybody needs and not everybody can achieve, so remember that.  Never feel stuck.  This is not to say that the specific training you have right now is sellable on the open market, but since you’re a mathematician the one thing you can count on being good at is learning new stuff.  So if you decide to change fields, get ready to roll up your sleeves and work your butt off to learn the necessary stuff, but be sure that you can do it and that it will be really important to the people you work for.  And if it isn’t, or if you don’t think your work is being appreciated, go get a better job.  Thanks!

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3 thoughts on “Cathy O’Neil blogs at Mathbabe

  1. Anon. IV says:

    How is this specifically an “inspirational speech for women in math”? What here applies to women but not men?

  2. JSE says:

    Her post title, not mine!

  3. Rob H. says:

    It says in her blog post that it was a speech given to women in math, hence being “for” women in math. Also, while all in the speech may apply to men as well as women (or to a mixed audience), it doesn’t mean that that is the speech she would’ve given to a different audience. There are (at least) thousands of things you could say to people in math, so in any given speech you’ll want to focus on what you want to say to the audience in question. In this case, it also appears they audience was there for a “non-academic career” panel, and I think that is also reflected in the content.

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