I was directed to Math Babe by a link from Fawn Nguyen’s blog Finding Ways to Nguyen Students Over and it’s definitely a different kind of math blog than I’m used to reading. For one thing, blogmistress Cathy O’Neill was a former data scientist who co-authored the text Doing Data Science and before that she was a quant on Wall Street. (“Quants” or quantitative analysts are much sought after in the finance sector.)
Dr. O’Neill is currently the director of The Lede Program at the Columbia School of Journalism and she brings her unique perspective to her MathBabe blog. Primary topics of discussion include data science, statistics, finance, journalism and data modeling. Her writing style is friendly but not oversimplified. Her innate sense of humor always shines through, particularly with her regular feature Ask Aunt Pythia where she takes questions from readers in a mock advice column format (Pythia was the priestess at the Oracle of Delphi).
The questions aren’t restricted to finance wonkery, however. For example, this one from “Breasts of Oppression”:
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I am a female physics PhD student. A colleague once said to me that “If women want to be respected, they should not show cleavage.” What do you think?
Aunt Pythia’s answer?
I’ve always thought quite the reverse. Namely, if men had boobs, they’d be showing them off all the time.
MathBabe has earned pride of place in my RSS feed so head on over there and tell her I sent you. (She has no idea who I am but, as I’ve mentioned, I’m trying to start a thing.)
“Surely one has to pay one’s debts.”
The reason it’s so powerful is that it’s not actually an economic statement: it’s a moral statement. After all, isn’t paying one’s debts what morality is supposed to be all about? Giving people what is due them. Accepting one’s responsibilities. Fulfilling one’s obligations to others, just as one would expect them to fulfill their obligations to you. What could be a more obvious example of shirking one’s responsibilities than reneging on a promise, or refusing to pay a debt?”
Excerpt From: David Graeber. “Debt.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/3z6RA.l
I was first put on to this book when I heard an interview with the author on the Majority Report podcast. David Graeber is an anthropologist who teaches at the London School of Economics and has a unique perspective on the intersection between economics, politics, religion, war and human nature. As the quote above suggests, this book was born out of a desire to answer a deceptively simple question: How does morality enter into what should be an objective business transaction?
At over 500 pages (including copious footnotes), this is not what you might call a breezy summer read. However, it’s very engaging and Graeber writes in a style that is friendly while still maintaining an academic rigor. He does an excellent job explaining how the very concept of ‘debt’ has hooked itself into some primordial part of our collective souls.
You’ll never look at your mortgage statement in the same way again.
Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: The first 5000 years. New York: Melville Publishing.