Category Archives: friends

In defense of Nate Silver and experts

Cathy goes off on Nate Silver today, calling naive his account of well-meaning people saying false things because they’ve made math mistakes.  In Cathy’s view, people say false things because they’re not well-meaning and are trying to screw you — or, sometimes, because they’re well-meaning but their incentives are pointed at something other than accuracy.  Read the whole thing, it’s more complicated than this paraphrase suggests.

Cathy, a fan of and participant in mass movements, takes special exception to Silver saying:

This is neither the time nor the place for mass movements — this is the time for expert opinion. Once the experts (and I’m not one of them) have reached some kind of a consensus about what the best course of action is (and they haven’t yet), then figure out who is impeding that action for political or other disingenuous reasons and tackle them — do whatever you can to remove them from the playing field. But we’re not at that stage yet.

Cathy’s take:

…I have less faith in the experts than Nate Silver: I don’t want to trust the very people who got us into this mess, while benefitting from it, to also be in charge of cleaning it up. And, being part of the Occupy movement, I obviously think that this is the time for mass movements.

From my experience working first in finance at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw during the credit crisis and afterwards at the risk firm Riskmetrics, and my subsequent experience working in the internet advertising space (a wild west of unregulated personal information warehousing and sales) my conclusion is simple: Distrust the experts.

I think Cathy’s distrust is warranted, but I think Silver shares it.  The central concern of his chapter on weather prediction is the vast difference in accuracy between federal hurricane forecasters, whose only job is to get the hurricane track right, and TV meteorologists, whose very different incentive structure leads them to get the weather wrong on purpose.  He’s just as hard on political pundits and their terrible, terrible predictions, which are designed to be interesting, not correct.

Cathy wishes Silver would put more weight on this stuff, and she may be right, but it’s not fair to paint him as a naif who doesn’t know there’s more to life than math.  (For my full take on Silver’s book, see my review in the Globe.)

As for experts:  I think in many or even most cases deferring to people with extensive domain knowledge is a pretty good default.  Maybe this comes from seeing so many preprints by mathematicians, physicists, and economists flushed with confidence that they can do biology, sociology, and literary study (!) better than the biologists, sociologists, or scholars of literature.  Domain knowledge matters.  Marilyn vos Savant’s opinion about Wiles’s proof of Fermat doesn’t matter.

But what do you do with cases like finance, where the only people with deep domain knowledge are the ones whose incentive structure is socially suboptimal?  (Cathy would use saltier language here.)  I guess you have to count on mavericks like Cathy, who’ve developed the domain knowledge by working in the financial industry, but who are now separated from the incentives that bind the insiders.

But why do I trust what Cathy says about finance?

Because she’s an expert.

Is Cathy OK with this?

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Startup culture, VC culture, and Mazurblogging

Those of us outside Silicon Valley tend to think of it as a single entity — but venture capitalists and developers are not the same people and don’t have the same goals.  I learned about this from David Carlton’s blog post.  Cathy O’Neil reposted it this morning.  It’s kind of cool that the three of us, who started grad school together and worked with Barry Mazur, are all actively blogging!  We just need to get Matt Emerton in on it and then we’ll have the complete set.  Maybe we could even launch a new blogging platform and call it mazr.  You want startup culture, I’ll give you startup culture!


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Jane Yeh, On Ninjas

My friend Jane Yeh has a new book of poems out and it is about ninjas.  Here’s the title poem:

They eat four-cheese pizzas with three of the cheeses removed.
They make friendship bracelets out of aluminum foil and poison.
They open windows just by thinking about opening windows.
They take ballet lessons to improve the speed of their circular arm movements.

The ninjas are coming, coming to save us from muggers
And disorganized thieves and slobs who want to kill us.
The way to spot a ninja is to look for someone wearing black pajamas—
Preternaturally neat black pajamas—with a hood for cover.

The way to tell one ninja from another is by the ankles.
The way to tell one ninja from another is you can’t.
They know how to levitate by thinking about birds’ feet.
They make terrible cater waiters because no one can hear them coming.

Their mission is to save us from chaos with their acute tumbling skills
And their climbing proficiency. They don’t want to dismember
Bad jazz musicians or art teachers or con men, but they will.
They know how to escape from a trap by running in place very, very fast.

They can change places with each other by thinking about numbers.
They know how to turn themselves into fog to avoid attending boring parties.
They make single-serving Lancashire hotpots to show their culinary mastery.
They take turns doing the laundry. (It’s easy; no whites or colors.)

The ninjas are here to help us. They are as ruthless as history
Or defenestration. They are pitiless as a swarm of bees, or evolution.
They know how to throw fireballs and do their own taxes.
They hate litter and small children. They are here to fix us.


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Some of my best friends are cross-dressing kingmakers

Steve Burt profiled in the New York Times Magazine.

I thought the profile was a little too heavy on other people talking about Steve and too light on Steve talking about Steve, so here’s Steve’s long and in part autobiographical essay about Game Theory (the band, not the branch of math) which is subtitled, I’m guessing by Steve himself, “An awkward essay about a deeply ambivalent band with a very unpromising name, including notes on nerd camp, fear of sex, Northern California area codes, and autobiographical digressions, with a book review near the end.”  If you want to read something more directly about poetry, here’s Steve’s essay “Close Calls With Nonsense” from The Believer, which lays out, to the extent that it can be laid out, the state of American poetry as it looks from one vantage.


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Lev Grossman — they asked him anything

Friend of the blog Lev Grossman did an AMA on reddit tonight about his novels The Magicians and The Magician King.  (I wrote about The Magicians here.)  Lots of good material but I especially liked this from Lev on Narnia:

You know how you — by which I mean me — love your parents, but you’re also kind of permanently angry at them, all the time? That’s how I feel about the Narnia books. I really do love them. I’ve tried to make my daughter read them about 100 times. But I feel so bitter about them too — about what they did and didn’t prepare me for in life.

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Gluten-free for lent

I have a friend who has given up gluten for lent.  We had an interesting discussion today about whether this would be annoying to someone suffering from celiac disease.  We considered this test case:  would it be OK, or not OK, to rent a wheelchair and give up walking for Lent?  Clearly not OK, it seems to me, but I’m having trouble formulating the correct decision principle.  Lots of people give up sweets for Lent, and this doesn’t seem insensitive in any way to the world’s diabetics.

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Graham Burnett wrote a very big book about whales

My friend Graham has written an 800-page book for the University of Chicago Press about the history of whales, whaling, and whale science.  It sounds kind of amazing:  lots of politics, lots of bizarre anecdote, lots of footnotes, lots of smelly tissue and secretions.  Here’s the NYTimes review.  Graham also edits the always-interesting culture/science/deepthought/art magazine Cabinet.

Seems a good time to say again what I said about Dan Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line:   “This why we have books and not just blogs; this is why we have historians and not just editorialists.”

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Cathy O’Neil is killing it

Some great recent posts from Mathbabe, the funniest and pissed-offiest “math, the universe, and everything” blog on the tubes:

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Imraan Coovadia on South African fiction

Pungent as usual:

During the late 20th century, the black-white struggle in South Africa interested Americans because it looked like an African version of the civil rights movement. But it never was. We seem to have fulfilled some imaginative need in the 1980s and 90s. We were grateful for the interest. But we’re not actively persecuting anybody nowadays. As a result, people aren’t particularly interested in what’s happening here any more, except for the occasional Aids, infidelity and polygamy controversy. Nowadays, people are more interested in reading about how terrible Zimbabwe is. They’ve moved on.

Imraan’s new novel, High Low In-Between, won the 2010 South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize.  It’s not out in the US, but you can mail-order it.  I just got mine.

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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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