Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Things I've Learned About Academic Work From Playing Age of Empires

We all have guilty pleasures. Mine is playing Age of Empires, a strategy game in which you build a military and try to take over the world. I play under the handle “StatisticianOfDeath”, and while I am (by online standards) pretty mediocre, I can probably beat you. (The online players who are better than me include, I suspect, people who pee into bottles so they don’t have to take a break, so I’m content to be average.)

Anyway, in an attempt to rationalize the hours I’ve spent slaughtering little imaginary men, here are four lessons I’ve learned about academic work from playing Age of Empires.

  1. Feeling like an outsider sucks, and worsens your performance. I rarely feel like an outsider in male-dominated settings -- computer science classes, chess tournaments -- in part, I think, because I’ve been doing these things since I was quite young. But I definitely felt like I would never be a true Age of Empires player, that there was some secret ability to sack and pillage that I was fundamentally lacking. Part of this was probably due to conversations like this one:

[Waiting to start a game, I notice one of the other players is named “Rapist”]
Me: Uh, Rapist.
Rapist: What’s up?
Me: Uh, you kind of have a terrible name. Maybe you should change your name? A lot of girls get raped. Guys too.
Rapist: Moral f**.
Me: No, just a statistician.
Rapist: I like my name.
Me: Haha, I can see that. Well, you do you.

So I didn’t feel like I fit in, and since I hadn’t been playing since I was 12, I didn’t feel like a true gamer. Consequently, I played too defensively: attacking before your opponent is ready (even if you don’t have much of an army) gives you an advantage. This was especially bad because I played as the Goth civilization, and since they can’t build walls, they have to attack or they lose.

Here is the part Sheryl Sandberg would approve of: with the help of my boyfriend (whose handle is “LIGAMENT_ANNIHILATOR”: I think this is better than “Rapist” because very few people get their ligaments annihilated) I gradually learned to “lean in”, by which I mean “send long swordsmen into the enemy’s base when I wasn’t feeling quite ready”. The analogue in research: if you tend to be underconfident, go for it even if you aren’t feeling 100% prepared, because odds are your rivals aren’t either and you will slaughter their villagers do a good job.
  1. There are huge gaps between people who are good and people who are mediocre. I am rated about 1600 in Age of Empires. A player who is rated 1700 will consistently beat me, and it won’t be pretty; I will have an army of like 8 dudes, and they’ll show up in my base with like 80 fire catapults.

When you lose in Age of Empires, you lose emphatically. The 1700 will be consistently beaten by an 1800, and I’ve seen 2200s on the site. The ladder of skill, in other words, ascends a long way.
This is also true in coding: it’s often said that great programmers are 10 times as productive as mediocre programmers. Certainly I know mathematicians and computer scientists whose brains just work on a different level than mine does. Whether you’re trying to finish some code or build an army of knights, if you’re wondering whether there’s someone who can do it way faster than you, the answer is probably yes.

  1. The difference between success and failure can be the amount of resources you throw at a problem. Age of Empires does not reward subtlety. You don’t win a game by creating a single Barracks and sending in Seal Team 6 (or its medieval equivalent); you build 9 BARRACKS AND THEN YOU RESEARCH CONSCRIPTION AND PERFUSION AND CHURN OUT 5 HUSKARLS A SECOND AND BLOOD MAKES THE GRASS GROW! KILL! KILL!
Sorry. Similarly, in statistics, I often find that I have to look at a dataset 14 different ways to find the one that’s worth writing about. People come to me complaining about a dataset because they tried one thing and it didn’t work. The first thing I try hardly ever works. It is a question of a) getting fast enough that you can try a lot of stuff quickly and b) trying a lot of stuff. (Caveat 1: I am not saying that you should examine 14 different hypotheses and report the one which is significant with p = .048. Caveat 2: obviously, some instinct for the problems worth examining is helpful. But my accuracy is far below 100%.)

  1. Sometimes you just have to batter a problem into submission. When a player is on the defensive, they sometimes just build four layers of walls. This is an obnoxious strategy, and really the only way to deal with it is to bring in siege weapons -- trebuchets, catapults, rams -- and batter down the walls. A lot of academic work, I think, is like this -- you know what needs to be done, but it’s not that intellectually engaging, and you just have to batter the walls down. Philip Guo, who completed his PhD in computer science, refers to the process as the “PhD grind”. But I prefer to think of it like this:

In case you’re wondering, yes, I did actually play Age of Empires so I could make all those diagrams myself.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Three Hundred Thousand Stories

Content warning: sexual assault, mass shooting, profanity.

One year ago today, a 22-year-old named Elliot Rodger killed six people in an effort to “destroy all women because I can never have them. I will make them suffer for rejecting me. I will arm myself with deadly weapons and wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to. And I will slaughter them like the animals they are”.

I do not want to write about Rodger. He deserves to be forgotten. I want to write about what happened afterwards, which is that Twitter exploded with the hashtag #YesAllWomen: thousands of people protesting sexual violence and sexism more broadly. Over the next month, I collected more than 1.13 million posts, more than 300,000 of them unique. I have studied many Twitter discussions, but I think this was the most extraordinary, an event unprecedented in history. Rape so often ends in silence: from Alaska to South Africa, college campuses to military barracks, the majority of sexual assaults go unreported, and the vast majority of assaulters walk free.

407 people told stories of being raped in my dataset. As I counted their stories and marveled at their courage I found myself wanting to reach out, like Darth Vader, and choke the life out of those who had hurt them. They were painting a picture that transcended any single tweet: who cared enough about sexual violence to speak up about it, how men and women had spoken differently, how the movement had evolved, who had tried to attack it. Because statistics can never replace individual stories, I also spoke to the most prolific tweeters, who ranged from scientists to sexual assault survivors, dominatrices to grandmothers. This is what they told me.


Three quarters of the tweeters whose gender I could identify from first name were women [1]; they were 10 times as likely as the average tweeter to describe themselves as feminists, and also more likely to describe themselves using words like “gender”, “equality”, “atheist”, “literature”, “violence”, “queer”, and “vegetarian”. To understand how their backgrounds influenced what they cared about, I made a visualization connecting tweets to the words tweeters tended to use to describe themselves. Here’s a screenshot; tweets are circles:
Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 1.53.01 PM.png
You can see the interactive version and read the tweets here. It shows atheists retweeting "#YesAllWomen are treated like property in the Bible... but extremely valuable property! Like, worth as much as dozens of cows!" It shows men saying that they can do better. It shows gamers and video fans discussing gender inequality in online videos: "When a woman makes a video, most comments are about tearing apart her looks ... with a man, almost none."

But to me the most moving thing about this picture is its lack of pattern. Maybe you can see systematic differences in what yogis and daughters and actresses tweet, but as a statistician trained to find differences in data, I see instead a universal rage: all women face violence and misogyny. Perhaps their only common element is their courage: as their Twitter profiles attest, they are female, fabulous, and fierce.

Of course, there’s a lot more to someone than their Twitter profile reveals. So I wrote to the most prolific tweeters to learn more. Some of them had tweeted thousands of times, and had faced so much harassment for doing so that they were reluctant to talk to me. One, a former dominatrix, told me that need for money had driven her down dangerous paths, teaching her that “a group of men in the world and even some women expect there to be an underclass of people whose lives and bodily integrity just matter less than people's desire for entertainment.”

A second tweeter was a grandmother (never let it be said that they don’t use Twitter), who told me she got “granny-angry”. A survivor of sexual assault and domestic abuse who worked for two decades as a victims’ advocate, she spent a summer posting obsessively -- “I was determined the damned misogynists weren't going to hijack the tag” -- building support with the other frequent tweeters even as they were threatened and, occasionally, publicly identified online.

A third woman, a scientist, got angry at the “flood of trolls” saying “Rape claims are inflated” or “Be grateful you don’t have REAL problems.”

“I was so sick of seeing ‘cite your sources’ from men insulting women who had been raped...that I decided I’d cite ALL the sources,” she said. So she began tweeting out the conclusions of dozens of academic papers on assault.

“A man told me ‘shut up, no one cares,’ ” she said.  “I said ‘Obviously you do, or you wouldn’t be trolling this tag.’ In response, someone else told me to die and threatened to rape me. I reported it as a violent threat, only to have Twitter respond—two days later—that it wasn’t violating their terms of service.”

Interestingly, in spite of these attacks, the vast majority of tweets containing #YesAllWomen supported the hashtag, and most posters saw their number of Twitter followers increase. Still, I wanted to understand who, exactly, attacks a woman discussing her own rape, so I identified widely shared anti-#YesAllWomen tweets and studied the people who shared them. Like the pro-#YesAllWomen tweeters, most of these anti-#YesAllWomen tweeters had more followers a month later, probably indicating their different social circles. I contacted several of the attackers to determine their motivation, but they were not terribly interested in having a serious conversation with a woman studying a feminist tweet, and several preferred to harass me instead. So I resorted instead to my other strategy for getting to know people: I downloaded 1.5 million of their tweets. While I was tempted to homogenize the attackers, I found diverse clusters. Some were high profile, including a mixed-martial arts champion, a conservative commentator and comedian, and a Peabody Award-winning actor; the less high-profile tweeters included political conservatives and wrestling fans. One of the most prolific, who tweeted more than 1,700 times(!) in my data, highlights their diversity: she is, to quote her Twitter profile, “into Wrestling, Catfighting And Sexfighting”, “A Domme Who Conquors Her Slaves” and “Gay But...Do Not Hate Men!”. Ironically, she was upset about the same thing many pro-#YesAllWomen tweeters were: what she saw as double standards. For example, an attractive criminal, like Jeremy Meeks, got women asking to be raped, while a less attractive criminal would not; women who beat up men were powerful, but men who beat up women were abusers.

Because men and women often have different perspectives on sexual assault, I also spoke to men who tweeted prolifically. Two said they were motivated in part by the experiences of women they cared about.

“I've had close friends come home crying from frat parties after a ‘rodeo’ gang rape,” one said. “I've worked jobs where I've seen women slapped on the ass, pinched, whistled at, preyed upon and cowed by management.  I have experienced fear reactions and trust barriers from women...once we're better friends they tell me about the times that they've been attacked.” A second male tweeter said he had been influenced growing up by his mother’s stories of being sexually abused. Both said that other men had questioned their masculinity for defending #YesAllWomen -- “calling me a ‘pussy’, asking me if I ‘had a vagina’ ” -- though one noted he got nowhere near as much abuse as the women.

Then I looked for broader gender differences. Looking at things retweeted mostly by men or women doesn’t reflect too well on the men. The most male-dominated tweets include charming observations like “#YesAllWomen should hit the weight room so they can avoid getting raped wit they weak asses” or “How many Women does it take to change a light bulb? 11, 10 to form a support group, and one to get her boyfriend to do it” [2]. But these tweets aren’t a fair summary of what most men think; rather, they reveal the things that women don’t think. In fact, four of the five most common tweets were the same for men and women.

It’s fairer to compare all tweets from men and women. For example, women use more words expressing fear and use more first-person language. Men use more profanity, and they also use it differently. When men say “dick”, it’s most frequently to retweet, “#YesAllWomen should suck dick on the first date”; for women, it’s “I'm not a tease for letting you buy me a drink and not going home with you. You offered me a drink, not your dick on a plate”. We can also find differences in how people treated those of the same versus the opposite gender. Men used more words expressing emotion, especially negative emotion, when talking to women. Women fired back: more than two thirds of tweets from women containing “part of the problem” were at men.

As I worked on this analysis, the laptop on which I stored the data became a grim weight; walking back to my room late each night, I shied away from the men I passed. But the weight also reminded me I did not walk alone: #YesAllWomen had revealed a vast network of people who shared common fears [3].

One of the tweeters said it best. A survivor of sexual assault who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder, she said she considered not speaking up because of backlash. I asked her why she did anyway.

Things like this help remind everyone who's had to face these types of oppression... that they are not alone,” she told me. “If my putting my neck on the line means that even one other person who's gone through these things feel just a little more supported, a little more safe, a little more like they can get up in the morning and feel okay with existing and that their life might just work out -- so be it.”

Thanks to the members of the #YesAllWomen movement for trusting me with their experiences, and to everyone who speaks out about sexism and sexual violence.


[1] Throughout, when analyzing gender differences, I use tweeter first name to identify gender, a method that works about half the time. It is important to remember that the other half may exhibit different statistical properties. Shoot me an email if you have thoughts on this.
[2] And oh, the many #YesAllWomen lightbulb jokes. A sampling:
How does a feminist change a lightbulb? She just holds on and the world revolves around her.”
“How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? None, they can't change anything.”
“How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Nevermind that, the word screw promotes rape culture.”
The feminists countered with some of their own:
“How many men does it take to change a lightbulb? None because they get mad after it won't screw”
“How many ‘nice guys’ does it take to change a light bulb? No one knows, they keep blaming it for not getting turned on.”
“How many men's rights activists does it take to change a lightbulb? Well, not all of them." #NotAllMen #Butprobablyalotofthem”
[3] Indeed, I found some evidence that the movement gained strength as tweeters combined multiple ideas to make more powerful tweets. In several cases, there was an early tweet about how women had to behave and then a later, more widely shared tweet contrasting women’s experience with men’s.
Early Tweet
Later Tweet
Because you get a "rape whistle" when you start college #YesAllWomen
Because when girls go to college they're buying pepper spray and rape whistles while guys are buying condoms #YesAllWomen
The constant worry your skirt or dress is too short or maybe your bra strap is showing and you'll attract the "wrong attention" #YesAllWomen
a ‘cool story babe, now make me a sandwich’ shirt doesn't break the school dress code. a girl's bra strap does #YesAllWomen

The marketplace of ideas has become, perhaps, the fusion reactor of ideas, where memes combine with explosive power and supporters of a social movement draw strength from each other through digital synapses. But it is important to note that establishing causality is difficult -- how do we know if the second tweeter saw the first tweet? Still, the pattern is repeated and the explanation is plausible.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Five Tips on Getting Non-Fiction Pieces Published As A Young Writer

This piece benefited from contributions from Julian Baird Gewirtz, a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate at Oxford whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and the Atlantic, among others.

I often chat with friends who are interested in publishing an op-ed or non-fiction essay. I have made many mistakes trying to do this which hopefully you can avoid; here are some tips. Take this with a grain of salt; it’s just one approach, and others may work better.

1. Maximize the odds that someone actually reads your piece. Here is a list of people ranked by how likely they are to respond to you:

  1. an editor with whom you’ve previously published.
  2. an editor with whom you have some other connection (someone you’ve met, a third-party intro, be creative).
  3. an writer / editor you’ve found online. This is often how I pitch something (do not feel like you need a personal connection to an editor to send them writing!) Here’s how I find an editor: after identifying a publication, I look through its articles to find one that’s similar to what I’m trying to publish (if you can’t find an article like that, you might want to find another publication). Hopefully the author is an editor with an email address I can find; writers are okay too. If this doesn’t work, you could try checking the publication’s masthead. I try not to email anyone with a job title that sounds too important.
  4. the general submission email for the publication. I have never had success emailing “opinions@publicationX” or “tips@publicationX”. Greg Smith, who published this widely read article, sent it to the NYT general op-ed address, had no luck, and emailed it to four editors, who responded. I’m not saying don’t ever email a general submissions email, but I haven’t had luck doing this, and I would try a real person first if you can.

Do not submit a piece to multiple editors simultaneously. I know, it’s tempting to save time, but it’s considered a faux pas by many editors and if they find out that you’re doing it, you risk pissing them off.

Okay, so you’ve found an email address. Keep your initial email short. Here is a recent representative pitch I sent to an editor.

Dear X,

I am a computer scientist who has written previously for the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, and Quartz. I have a piece which I hoped might be of interest to the Atlantic: it's about what analyzing email data can tell you about love. The piece is attached and also pasted below.

I hope your weekend has gone well, and thanks very much for your time.
Emma Pierson

I modify how I describe myself depending on who I’m writing to (this email was to a computer scientist). Shiny credentials are probably helpful but don’t go crazy with them. I often use an email address that does not reveal my gender. I always attach the full piece (and also paste it into the email).

Some people also pitch short descriptions of a potential piece without having written it; I don’t have much experience with that, but Julian does. He adds: “If you have a specific idea for a piece but are worried that it will require more research or time than you can realistically spare without knowing that an editor is interested, it’s very common to send a (slightly more detailed) pitch to an editor before actually writing the piece. I’ve never had a piece accepted only from a pitch, but I have had editors express interest, which motivated me to write something that they subsequently accepted... and, in other cases, something they subsequently rejected. Of course, you have to be sure that the piece is viable, and that you’ll be able to get the access you need. (Two exceptions to this are book reviews, where the publication will get the advance copy of the book on your behalf, and interviews, where the publication’s brand will often be essential to getting the interview.) I’d recommend only doing this for pieces that you are pitching for print, to weeklies, monthlies, and the like. In my limited experience, online editors usually prefer just to read the piece and accept or reject it based on that; they’re not working on lengthy timelines.”

2. Ways to break in. Okay, but how do you get started if you’ve never published anything before? Mostly, aim high and pitch a lot. Getting rejected costs you nothing; getting published gains you a lot. So, ignore your ego. In many academic fields, people first send their papers to the most competitive journals, expecting them to get rejected; then they move down. I would view publishing articles this way.  Caveat: do not spam editors (I don’t think I’ve ever sent an editor who rejected me a second piece within a month.) Also, obviously, don’t send out shoddy work. I don’t send anything out for publication unless at least one person whose opinion I respect has read it.

One way to ignore your ego: do not take a rejection as a reflection on the quality of the piece. There is so much bad stuff that is so widely read! Nothing you write can be worse than that. If I have something I think is good, I send it to at least two or three editors before giving up. Also, if I don’t hear back from an editor, I send a follow-up a week later; I try to make it sound like it was my fault they didn’t respond. All of my most widely read pieces have gotten rejected several times before they were published. Learn to love rejection (this also describes my dating strategy).

Also, consider starting a blog. This offers a few benefits:

  1. Gives you a compiled collection of work which you can send to publications that are looking for freelancers (this is how I got started at FiveThirtyEight)
  2. Posts can get picked up by other publications. When you write a blog post, you can post it other places (I use Reddit, Twitter, Hacker News, and Facebook).
  3. Gives you a place to put pieces that no one else will publish (which makes me more willing to write risky or personal pieces).

3. Be sensitive to time-sensitivity. Some pieces are “evergreen” -- they are about perennially interesting topics and will not get less publishable with time. But no one wants to read about a Twitter hashtag that spiked a month ago unless you can somehow make it fresh. Unfortunately, the timescale required for careful writing or analysis does not fit well with the news cycle, and I think you want to avoid turning out something quick and shoddy. Even if you could write a piece in zero time, if you’re trying to get it published with editors you’ve never made contact with, it might take weeks to get someone to pay attention, which is too long for news events. A few potential solutions:

  1. write evergreen pieces.
  2. if you have something inherently time-sensitive, send it to places that are more likely to publish it quickly -- editors you’ve previously made contact with, less competitive publications. I have never managed to get a time-sensitive piece published with an editor I’ve never contacted before.
  3. anticipate events. For example, I wrote a piece about the Ferguson grand jury decision about two days after it was announced. Because I knew the decision was coming, I did most of the analysis beforehand and sent the piece to an editor I already knew before the news broke.

Trying to publish about breaking news events is high-risk (you might not get published at all) but high-reward (because it might get widely shared).

A final note: regardless of whether your piece is evergreen, you can often make it more appealing by adding a hook that references a recent event.

4. Don’t be a prima donna. Keep in mind that editors are older than you, have all the power, and may be talking about you and rejecting your work for the next several decades; don’t be arrogant with your credentials or opinion of your writing. Example of what not to do: I was once working with an editor on a piece right after I had gotten my wisdom teeth taken out. Still a little sleepy from anesthesia, I read the editor’s proposed changes and shot her an email saying, “no, my friend at the New York Times thinks we should do it this way…” The editor did not work at the New York Times, and this did not go over well. Don’t do stuff like that. Also probably don’t email editors while high on surgical drugs.

In general, I am especially deferential when dealing with editors. I happily accept whatever money they do (or usually don’t) offer. I do not complain when they choose a title I dislike. When they are unquestionably misstating statistical results, I say “I think this might be slightly misleading”. When they reject my pieces, I thank them for their time, and when they publish them, I thank them about eight times. When I am actively working with an editor on a piece, I drop almost everything else to work on it. Etc.

5. Write something only you can write. My way to do this is to use data that no one else has. Find the way that works for you. If what you’re writing could be written by any smart person with access to Google, it’s less likely to be published. (Take this piece on income inequality by Nick Kristof, for example. I like this piece and I am glad someone wrote it. But there’s no need for me to attempt to write it because Nick Kristof can do a better job of it than I can and more people want to listen to him anyway.) Other people I know who have gotten published while in school have often leveraged their own special knowledge: for example, Sam Sussman has used his Israel-Palestine expertise, Julian has used his knowledge of China, and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has used Google data.

If you have further questions, disagreements, or tips of your own, shoot me an email so I can update this post if necessary!