The Documentation Gods are angry…

Do you remember that code you wrote last year? Yeah, that super great algorithm that you developed that did the Crazy-Hard thing. So, now there’s a problem that’s really similar and it would be great to reuse that code. Only, you can’t find it.  No, that’s no fun. Instead lets say that you DO find it in your well organized folders. Score!

Then you open the god-touched-code-of-awesome-ness and start looking through it, prepared to make use of all your hard work from last year.  But, despite your perfect plan, nothing in the code makes sense. It dawns on you that despite all the warnings that previous grad students have given you, you have no idea what anything does because you didn’t. comment. your. code.


Because at the time, you know, when you were working on the code for 6 hours a day, you thought, “I’ll always know what the user defined variable clim_y_max_kinda means!” I know, we’ve all been there. You should have written down your process, made a few notes so that when you look back you can follow the breadcrumbs of your project!

In business, this type of documentation is vital and necessary because the company never knows when you might leave. But in business, a lack of documentation might be called an oversight… but in grad school, I call it Hubris.

Hubris means extreme pride or self-confidence. When it offends the Gods of ancient Greece, it is usually punished. -Wikipedia

You have offended the Documentation Gods!


And then you stumble upon it.  The elusive and yet commonly used “pizza” variable. And while you have no idea what “pizza” stands for, you can remember being very hungry that day and getting amazing Pizza Luce on your way home…

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Road Ahead


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Learning Tools


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In a world where time becomes more valuable than brains.




In a world where time becomes more valuable than brains.

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Poise and Posture

No matter who you are, no matter what sub-culture you are living in:

You are making a statement
no matter what you choose to wear.

Did you know that your interviewer makes a decision about you within the first two minutes of meeting you? What you wear, how you hold yourself, your hand shake and your ability to produce small talk are all vital and necessary parts of the interview process. The color and pattern of your clothing matters too! But very few people will tell you that. There are many subcultures (including mathematics!) who believe that these things don’t matter… but these skills may be more vital to getting a job than your best proof.

Whatever realm you are walking through, there will be societal standards. If I was a math  professor, then I might be expected to wear an adult, subdued version of “shabby chic”. But if I walked into the administration building, I might need to add a suit coat or I’ll look like I think I are better than everyone else. “See that, Professor? She thinks she is too good to bother putting on a clean shirt!” This is because I failed to notice that the standards of dressing are different than inside the math department:

Societal standards are different everywhere. Sometimes people do things to stand out and get noticed. For example, if you dyed hair teal, then you should be prepared to join the ranks of teal haired mathematicians! Many of us, though, don’t think about fashion at all. In fact, a company that I once worked for informed all incoming interns of this fabulous phrase:


“But I like my comfortable clothing!” I can hear you say. Dressing to societal standards doesn’t mean you have to be uncomfortable the whole time. My current favorite trick is to buy a business polo from the company I work for. Then I wear it on days when I don’t feel like dressing up. I wear jeans and a company polo. All of a sudden, I look engaged and enthusiastic while I’m at work when I really just wanted to wear my pajamas but this was the next best thing.

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Cars! Acceleration vs MPG

I don’t own a car. I haven’t owned my own car for about 6 years, though a shared one for the first 4 of those. I’ve lived happily car-free for the last few years. This lifestyle isn’t possible for everyone, so most of us buy a car. But how do we chose? And why do car commercials get to arrogantly advertise their pick up has the best MPG in class of 27 MPG? 27 is a really crappy number. My first car, a 98 Chevy Cavalier got 32 MPG and I was a wild teenager driving that thing. Why have we progressed so little in the past 15 years? Why does a Google search find fuel efficient to mean 30+ MPG and not 50+ MPG?

I sat down to do some research about the historic relationship of acceleration vs MPG in America. We have, as a country, systematically chosen power over efficiency. A blogger, Dan, at put together a wonderful article that I will pull from for this post. He speaks to a big political document called the Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 – 2013 (which reads a lot like I imagine the IPCC report reads to non-climate folks…). It’s long and a little tedious to the uninitiated. So, just like I do with the IPCC, I’ll highlight the most insightful graph:

Figure 2.3 from the EPA annual report.

The fuel economy, or MPG, of cars has basically flat-lined since 1980. Without changing much about the vehicles weight, car manufacturers have dramatically increased performance. This graph gives well researched evidence that car manufacturers have no real drive to improve our efficiency. Okay, so why does this happen?

Now here is something really cool that Dan did: he made a lovely correlation plot of efficiency and power. He found that for every percentage drop of fuel economy you give up, you get 3 percentage points of power. This means that it always feels like a better deal to give up a little efficiency to gain a lot of power. Ugh.

Beautiful plot!

What does that power really get you? Wouldn’t you rather save the money at the pump? I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with this. But it’s worth thinking about. Luckily Obama has some legislation in place that will help efficiency get to were it ought to be. But for now I’m happy to live car free and hopefully by the time I want a car I will have more options for “high efficiency” vehicles.  …and then I found this:

I can’t even tell you how many versions of this meme I found! I have no words…

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Mathematicians in the big-data spotlight

Mathematicians and statisticians, perhaps with a sprinkle of programming and network science, will be as foundational to the modern workplace as numeracy was a century ago and literacy before that.

When I decided to go back to school my father explained to me that all disciplines see their heyday. As a society we are seemingly capable of focusing on only one major field at a time. So recently Biologists, Chemists and Computer Scientists have had their success. But it’s been a long time since Mathematicians have held center stage. In fact, mathematicians have been waiting quite some time to hold the imagination of the public. I can say this because whenever I told someone I was getting a PhD in Math, the first assumption was that I was going to teach. Because math isn’t, you know, good for anything useful. Not on it’s own. Maybe if you add some engineering or chemistry- but not on it’s own! But we, the math nerds, have had some recent success.

The housing market crashed, after years of statisticians and mathematicians wondering how we could continue to support bad investment loans. So good job to the mathematicians for noticing that something wasn’t right. But we didn’t have the clout back then to make a difference. Since then we’ve had other famous moments.

Those look like graduation robes! Maybe that’s because this was the last time math was cool?

Target statistician Andrew Pole famously determined how to identify pregnant women. And lets not forget PRISM and the NSA who hire huge teams of mathematicians. There is some difficulty with working in a field which wields a new tool. Just as staring at the sun took Galileo’s eyesight and the development of the nuclear bomb took the lives of many physicists, Big Data can be used in dangerous ways. But the data will continue to collect in dark musty closets and hard drives. Data which, when one knows the magic words, can open doors to exciting discovery.

Who knows the magic words? Statisticians and Mathematicians. We know the words to unlock the secrets of interlinked data. Mathematicians, Statisticians, and a few others with the knack can dig through the tables and columns to create useful, profitable, and valuable insight. “Every great research team has a mathematician,” I was once told. This may not have been true several decades ago. But now, when everything is data, the long overlooked mathematicians may have an opportunity to see the spotlight of societies gaze.The quote at the top of this article comes from the book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier. I recommend it! It’s good!

But, now that mathematicians may be standing in the spotlight, what will we do with the attention when we are so famous for being social rejects? I hope that we’ll take the opportunity to build a new stereotype. And that’s an exciting idea.


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