Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia has barely recovered from her pastry indulgences of last weekend, and yet it is time to once again act the advice tailor and dispense terrible and ill-fitted advice pants (probably because of said pastry indulgences) to anyone who will listen.

Don’t ask her why, but Aunt Pythia is into the concept of a tailor who will do house calls this morning, especially if that tailor will deliberately make ugly clothes. It’s a weird metaphor which Aunt Pythia is just going with, so please join her on this bizarre wavelength. Here’s how she’s feeling:

Well, not ill-fitting like this, but I couldn't help it.

Well, not ill-fitting like this, but who could resist.

Are you here? Are you prepared? And moreover, do you merely have a grotesque and morbid curiosity about other people’s problems, or are you also prepared to order and be fitted for your very own terrible advice pants as well? If so, don’t forget to:

ask Aunt Pythia a question at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’d hoping you’ll weigh in in a debate I’m having with my husband about sex, relationships, and human nature. He and I have had an open marriage for the last 2 years (out of 12 total). It’s generally been overwhelmingly positive for us, and has helped us survive the sometimes soul-numbing simultaneously responsibilities of small kids + demanding jobs reasonably happily (shout out to Dan Savage, for making me realize that this wasn’t a totally insane thing to try).

My husband thinks open marriages will become a lot more common in the coming decade, as sexual openness increases. I agree that they might increase somewhat as they become more normalized, but argue that the fundamentals of human nature inherently limit this. I think jealously is so common that only the people that are naturally low on the jealousy distribution are likely to make open marriages work. Thoughts?

One Philosophically Engaged Nonconformist

Dear OPEN,

I’m glad that is working for you guys! I am all for people figuring out how to be happy. The longer I’m married the more I realize how much of a miracle it is that anyone can stand being in a long-term relationship with anyone else, including themselves.

As for what will happen in the future, I have really no idea. The culture we live in changes so quickly, and assumptions are so ephemeral.

Just think about how quickly things have changed – in super positive ways – for gay people. Just 30 years ago shit was ridiculous, now we’re seeing gay couples get married and divorced. Just last night, I was at a comedy club where one of the comics mused about the possibility of gay men saving themselves for marriage. Who knows? Maybe.

I mean, it’s just one example, but it proves my point: this stuff just keeps moving along. Once upon a time we women got married because of stuff like economic need. Now that is thankfully more or less off the table. It once was assumed that everyone would have kids, now that’s no longer true. Shit changes!

Here’s what won’t change: people will continue to have lots of sex with each other.

The thing I always come back to, when I talk to open marriage people, or people in the “poly” community, is that people have always found ways to fuck each other, married or not, and this new-fangled way of talking and thinking about it is just that: a new-fangled way of talking and thinking about what’s already happening. I’m not saying talking about it so much is bad, although it may, as you suggest, provoke more jealousy at times then the old-fashioned way of staying on the down low. At other times it’s fine, and maybe even great!

I’d venture to say that, whether we talk about it or not, there’s a lot of nooky going on everywhere. I’d bet money on that continuing, and yet once again, I have no bets on the way we’ll talk about it in the future.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

A few of my intellectually curious friends that are not actively socially conscious or involved in local communities (aka your average nice citizen) often wonder about the usefulness of protests like Occupy or the ones surrounding Ferguson/policy brutality. My response is that it connects likeminded people and I give you and the group you work with on alternative banking systems as an example.

They’re also the ones who question using social media, although I find that social media often brings people’s attention to issues they’re tangentially aware of (or not aware of at all), and normally could happily pretend doesn’t exist. I think this is useful for society. I also have seen social media campaigns to mobilize activists to pressure local officials, similar to the way a petition shows authorities the level of support an issue is receiving from the general public.

Do you have more examples and arguments I can use?

Single Jogger Wins! (aka SJW, aka Social Justice Warrior)

Dear SJW,

I started out in Occupy offended by the way the financial system doesn’t work. Nowadays I think about all sorts of things, like mass incarceration, minimum wage, basic guaranteed income, and the privatization of education. I think about these things primarily through the lens of the finance system, and primarily because I am involved with the Alt Banking group.

So I guess what I’d say to your friends is that we live in a network of people and in a system of power, and the way we learn about how that system functions or doesn’t function is by questioning and critiquing the corners of the system we understand, until those corners give way to corridors and rooms that we thought were disconnected but aren’t, and we start to see patterns of inequity and structural failure, and that process connects us with other people in the system but even more importantly connects things in our own brain that were previously disconnected.

And along the way the failures of the system come down the hardest on the same group or groups of people, and it is maddening and depressing, but because you now have this network of like-minded people you also gain faith and strength that it can’t go on.

Then every now and then something like the Ferguson report comes out, delivered by the actual power structure, and you know you’re making at least some progress.

I hope that helps.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m 25, male, and finishing up my undergraduate Computer Sciences degree.

I am also completely inexperienced in romantic relationships; I can count the number of romantic relationships I’ve had on [lim–>0] hands. (This applies to the amount of sex/kissing/touch I’ve had as well, BTW.)

I’m pretty sure I’m not asexual. And I know I’m attracted to girls romantically because it’s happened a (very) few times in the past. [The first two were taken and the third sorta faded out before we got to a ‘relationship’ stage.] My mind tends to be really picky, so this is an extremely infrequent event.

There is a further complication; I have someone I know in Australia. Despite being on opposite sides of the world, we are very close. In a platonic sense. I’m not sure whether this is filling up my mental ‘relationship slot’ or not. Anyway, we use the symbol <> (instead of <3)… it’s complicated.

So. I’m not in a conventional romantic relationship, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin in getting into one. And I’m curious.
[1] How do you go about finding people you’d like a relationship with?
[2] …and if they’re willing, how does a relationship happen?
[3] …and how do you keep it going?
[4] Since it’ll probs come up at some point, how do I explain to a relationship partner that I also have this *other* platonic relationship with someone on another continent? [I’m NOT giving up said friend under any circumstances whatsoever.]

Simply Concerned Over Optimal Platonic Sincerity


Two things. First of all, I’m gonna go ahead and say yes, you are into that Australian, for the following reasons:

  1. The last line of your letter indicates that you feel strongly for them,
  2. The line before that indicates you think the Australian might be a threat to any other relationship, and
  3. I’m interpreting your explanation of “<>” as a coded message to said Australian, who might read Aunt Pythia columns sometimes and might be touched.

Second point: do you remember Dan Savage’s advice not to masturbate really hard, with your hand clenched, because then your penis will get used to it and actual sex won’t satisfy? I think it was Dan Savage anyway.

Well I kind of feel like saying that to you, but it’s not your penis you’re clenching, it’s your brain. I think you are too picky. I want you to stop being so picky, and start looking for reasons to like the people around you. Find an excuse to have a crush on the next woman who smiles at you. Even more importantly, give that next woman an excuse to have a crush on you, by being charming, funny, and kind.

You know, people think that attraction comes from other people, but it’s a damn lie. Attraction stems from ourselves. We make the person we are with attractive, by projecting the person they want to be onto them, and by simultaneously allowing them to let us be as gorgeous, fun, and as sexy as we secretly know we are.

When I have a crush on someone, I swoon half at their captivating mojo and the other half at my own ability to detect it and to amplify it.

Here’s the best part, namely that it is something we all know how to do if we train ourselves to do it. And you, my friend, are out of practice. So go do some sexy pushups, focus on having a sweet pineful moment, on this continent, on a daily basis, and generally speaking stop clenching so hard, because reality will be a disappointment otherwise.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Not a question, but thought you might like this (if you haven’t seen it already).

Loyal Reader

Dear Loyal,

Yes! Love it. Hot.

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Why are all the cute girls lesbian (or taken)?

Looking Eagerly, Surely, But Inevitably Aborted Near Success


When I was single, I kept seeing these cute guys with amazing homemade sweaters, and I would be disappointed when I found out they already have girlfriends or wives. Then one day it occurred to me that they were wearing the sweaters that their girlfriends had made them – duh – and that I should look for a guy who would look good in a homemade sweater. Done and done.

You, my friend, are into the lesbian look. And who isn’t, really. There’s a reason I have blue hair.

I suggest you find a straight girl who isn’t taken – there are plenty of them – and convince her to dress like a lesbian once you guys are hot and heavy. Easy peasy, especially since lesbians have badass style that nobody can resist.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Congratulations, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied, you could have made progress on that project instead.

But as long as you’re already here, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

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Driving While Black in the Bronx

This is the story of Q, a black man living in the Bronx, who kindly allowed me to interview him about his recent experience. The audio recording of my interview with him is available below as well.

Q was stopped in the Bronx driving a new car, the fourth time that week, by two rookie officers on foot. The officers told Q to “give me your fucking license,” and Q refused to produce his license, objecting to the tone of the officer’s request. When Q asked him why he was stopped, the officer told him that it was because of his tinted back windows, in spite of there being many other cars on the same block, and even next to him, with similarly tinted windows. Q decided to start recording the interaction on his phone after one of the cops used the n-word.

After a while seven cop cars came to the scene, and eventually a more polite policeman asked Q to produce his license, which he did. They brought him in, claiming they had a warrant for him. Q knew he didn’t actually have a warrant, but when he asked, they said it was a warrant for littering. It sounded like an excuse to arrest him because Q was arguing. He recorded them saying, “We should just lock this black guy up.”

They brought him to the precinct and Q asked him for a phone call. He needed to unlock his phone to get the phone number, and when he did, the policeman took his phone and ran out of the room. Q later found out his recordings had been deleted.

After a while he was assigned a legal aid lawyer, to go before a judge. Q asked the legal aid why he was locked up. She said there was no warrant on his record and that he’d been locked up for disorderly conduct. This was the third charge he’d heard about.

He had given up his car keys, his cell phone, his money, his watch and his house keys, all in different packages. When he went back to pick up his property while his white friend waited in the car, the people inside the office claimed they couldn’t find anything except his cell phone. They told him to come back at 9pm when the arresting officer would come in. Then Q’s white friend came in, and after Q explained the situation to him in front of the people working there, they suddenly found all of his possessions. Q thinks they assumed his friend was a lawyer because he was white and well dressed.

They took the starter plug out of his car as well, and he got his cell phone back with no videos. The ordeal lasted 12 hours altogether.

“The sad thing about it,” Q said, “is that it happens every single day. If you’re wearing a suit and tie it’s different, but when you’re wearing something fitted and some jeans, you’re treated as a criminal. It’s sad that people have to go through this on a daily basis, for what?”

Here’s the raw audio file of my interview with Q:


Four political camps in the big data world

Last Friday I was honored to be part of a super interesting and provocative conference at UC Berkeley’s Law School called Open Data: Addressing Privacy, Security, and Civil Rights Challenges.

What I loved about this conference is that it explicitly set out to talk across boundaries of the data world. That’s unusual.

Broadly speaking, there are four camps in the “big data” world:

  1. The corporate big data camp. This involves the perspective that we use data to know our customers, make our products tailored to their wants and needs, generally speaking keep our data secret so as to maximize profits. The other side of this camp is the public, seen as consumers.
  2. The security crowd. These are people like Bruce Schneier, whose book I recently read. They worry about individual freedom and liberty, and how mass surveillance and dragnets are degrading our existence. I have a lot of sympathy for their view, although their focus is not mine. The other side of this camp is the NSA, on the one hand, and hackers, on the other, who exploit weak data and privacy protections.
  3. The open data crowd. The people involved with this movement are split into two groups. The first consists of activists like Aaron Swartz and Carl Malamud, whose basic goal is to make publicly available things that theoretically, and often by law, should be publicly available, like court proceedings and scientific research, and the Sunlight Foundation, which focuses on data about politics. The second group of “open data” folks come from government itself, and are constantly espousing the win-win-win aspects of opening up data: win for companies, who make more profit, win for citizens, who have access to more and better information, and win for government, which benefits from more informed citizenry and civic apps. The other side of this camp is often security folks, who point out how much personal information often leaks through the cracks of open data.
  4. Finally, the camp I’m in, which is either the “big data and civil rights” crowd, or more broadly the people who worry about how this avalanche of big data is affecting the daily lives of citizens, not only when we are targeted by the NSA or by someone stealing our credit cards, but when we are born poor versus rich, and so on. The other side of this camp is represented by the big data brokers who sell information and profiles about everyone in the country, and sometimes the open data folks who give out data about citizens that can be used against them.

The thing is, all of these camps have their various interests, and can make good arguments for them. Even more importantly, they each have their own definition of the risks, as well as the probability of those risks.

For example, I care about hackers and people unreasonably tracked and targeted by the NSA, but I don’t think about that nearly as much as I think about how easy it is for poor people to be targeted by scam operations when they google for “how do I get food stamps”. As another example, when I saw Carl Malamud talk the other day, he obviously puts some attention into having social security numbers of individuals protected when he opens up court records, but it’s not obvious that he cares as much about that issue as someone who is a real privacy advocate would.

Anyway, we didn’t come to many conclusions in one day, but it was great for us all to be in one room and start the difficult conversation. To be fair, the “corporate big data camp” was not represented in that room as far as I know, but that’s because they’re too busy lobbying for a continuation of little to no regulation in Washington.

And given that we all have different worries, we also have different suggestions for how to address those worries; there is no one ideal regulation that will fix everything, and for that matter some people involved don’t believe that government regulations can ever work, and that we need citizen involvement above all, especially when it comes to big data in politics. A mishmash, in other words, but still an important conversation to begin.

I’d like it to continue! I’d like to see some public debates between different representatives of these groups.

Categories: Uncategorized

Standardized Testing Opt-out Rally in Brooklyn Today

I just got back from Berkeley, California, which was amazing.

Listening to the radio out there, I was pleased to hear all about the growing standardized testing protest movement going on here in New York City. And although I see lots of reasons to discuss Common Core issues separately from the over-reliance on testing, I can understand why parents are wrapping all of that stuff up together.

There’s just too much time spent in our schools on testing, so pulling our kids out of that complete waste is an obvious step in the right direction. And New York parents are not the only ones complaining. In Florida, of all places, they recently limited the number of hours kids can be made to take standardized tests.

There will be a rally today at 4pm at the Prospect Park bandshell in Brooklyn for parents who are joining the New York state opt-out movement. I wish I could go.

Another huge story out there in the Bay Area, which I’ll come back to on some other day, is the racist texting and email scandal among the San Francisco police.

Categories: Uncategorized

Aunt Pythia’s and Uncle Aristippus’ advice

Readers, Aunt Pythia has an amazing guest philosopher here with her today in sunny Berkeley, a paradise on earth and home to the Kouign Amann:

The Bay Area's answer to the cronut.

The Bay Area’s answer to the cronut. Plus they’re sexy if you look at them right.

His name is Aristippus, and he claims to be the inventor of hedonism. We’ll be the judges of that, though, shall we? His philosophy dictates a lifestyle in which he consumes delicious pastries and quality coffee on a daily basis, takes long walks by the Bay, and meets new and interesting people while basking in hot tubs. He loves you all, assuming you do not give him reason to stop.

I hope you enjoy Uncle Aristippus, and afterwards don’t forget to:

    ask Aunt Pythia a question at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Hi Aunt Pythia,

I have recently started to masturbate in front of my partner of 10 years. It’s something I have done before with other partners but not a lot.

On Saturday night we went out and got drunk we came home and ended up in bed, I went down on her as usual and she came a couple of times then I wanted to wank in front of her. We kissed and she touched me as I masturbated, I love it and find it so erotic. I pushed her hand between her legs and she started to masturbate in front of me, something she has never done before. I watched and finished myself off, with her watching me it was so good.

I now feel a little awkward in front of her, like this was a place we should never have gone, like it’s dirty or she may feel it’s dirty but just does it for me? I know I should ask her about it but I am too shy.

Your advice and advice from other would be welcome.

Horny UK

Dear Horny,

I’m really beginning to wonder if Aunt Pythia has just become a place where people test out their erotic writing chops. I mean, here you are, with an awesome girlfriend who is game for your deepest, dirtiest desire – not so deep, and not so dirty, I might add – and there’s really nothing wrong, and no question in sight, so you made one up. My only real advice is: “it was so good” might need some elaboration.

Aunt Pythia

Friend Horny,

I’m somewhat at a loss for words. Taking your question completely at face value, I can only suggest that you do the obvious: talk to your mate. You’ve been together ten years, you say? It’s wonderful you two are still having regular, mutually satisfying sex, even if you think sharing masturbation is dirty or kinky. Many people do that long before they have sex (my initial reaction to your letter was, “Wait, it took you ten years?”).

If this is an activity you enjoy, but that makes you uncomfortable, you have three choices. First, become desensitized and unlearn the discomfort, so you guys can just enjoy each other’s bodies without feeling that shame. Second, learn to actually enjoy the discomfort – there are definitely people who get off on doing things that feel transgressive or shameful, and if that’s you, there’s nothing wrong with that. Your kink is not my kink, but your kink is OK too! Third, well, give up masturbating in front of each other and find some other kink to enjoy. There are plenty to choose from!



Dear Aunt Pythia,

Perhaps you would indulge a break from the “Page Six” titillations to direct your prophetic vision to a math study question. Kind of like a word from our sponsor, MathBabe.

In reading this outstanding post which primarily deals with the eventual delights of not knowing, mention was also made of “Silverman and Tate,” and how it extricated you from the slough of despond. I too had tumbled into that dreaded mire (although I had substantially less to fall).

I immediately took the advice and was similarly uplifted.

So here is my question. Any mention of “Silverman and Tate” is quick to point out, pejoratively, that it is but an easy, undergraduate text. I did find it quite accessible. Now I would like to go further in studying elliptic curves. In that pursuit, I got a copy of Cassels “Lectures on EC.” I thought this would be a well-conceived next step, as one comment I saw characterized it as a “high-brow Silverman and Tate.”

But I find it difficult. Perhaps because it is quite pithy – forgive the eponymous remark. Actually my difficulties with it go far beyond that. This is one of many similar experiences I have had where standard undergrad texts (e.g., Dummit & Foote, Axler “Linear Algebra Done Right” -yuck, even the early parts of “Ireland & Rosen”) go quite well, yet Lang, “Atayah & Macdonald”, etc. are impenetrable. Plus I find it much more enjoyable to study math in action as in “S&T” rather than a catalog of definitions, theorems, and proofs. (Although some proofs are quite symphonic.)

I am a self-studier with no real math education. And I am willing to put in the work. I am in need of advice as to how to progress.

Pilgrim’s (Lack Of) Progress

Dear PLOP,

It’s a language! You can’t just read it, you need to learn how to speak it. Seriously, very few people can just pick up a graduate text in math and understand it. It’s not a bad sign, nor is it a failure.

I’d recommend meeting up with others who are also trying to learn this stuff, and finding online resources where you can see people using this stuff. Math Overflow is also a great resource. A quick YouTube search exposes hundreds of relevant lectures. I’m sure there are also podcasts you might consider (look at this list of math podcasts for example).

Keep at it, that stuff is gorgeous!


Auntie P

Wise PLOP,

Aristippus is afraid he cannot help you with this problem, as he failed at being a real mathematician, and went off to do applied statistics instead.

Love and apologies,


Dear Aunt Pythia,

You are all-knowing and all-seeing.

What should I think about Amazon Sales Rank figures for my Kindle books? I have only known about them since Thursday. I read a Kindle book by Steve Scott about Kindle books and so I created an Author Page in Amazon. From there, I saw the Sales Rank figures (obviously, a Big Data product). From the Amazon Author Page, I saw the link to Nielson BookScan and saw the sales figures for my hardback book (someone I know from Weight Watchers said “Oh, a coffee table book”).

Lost in Space

Dear Lost,

I have no idea. I have never looked at my Amazon sales rank. Wait, I just did. 12,215. I have no idea what that means.

If I had to guess what that means, I’d say they take a time window – maybe 48 hours – and count how many copies of books have been sold, and simply rank them in order. If they made it too much longer than 48 hours, it would not be sensitive to new hits, and if they made it too much shorter, it would be too volatile. Twitter has a kind of metric like this to define “what’s trending,” and it’s a wee bit more complicated but that’s the gist.

Aunt Pythia

Comrade LIS,

I have known and loved a few authors. Although Aunt Pythia seems to be immune to the fever, all of other writers I’ve known well fell victim, at one time or another, to a mania for checking their sales rank, feeling delighted if it improved, and despondent if it declined. But ultimately they got perspective, and realized it was more important to them to get back to writing their next book, and cash any royalty checks that came in from volumes that had earned out their advance.

So, to be frank, my advice would be to emulate Pythia’s example: don’t think about it at all.



Dear Aunt Pythia,

What is your opinion of the pickup artist community? A few of my friends (with severe social anxiety) are obsessed with pickup, crediting it for their newfound confidence and ability to talk to women. They see it as a tool for self-improvement and their dedication is almost stoic, but I see it as misogynistic and myopic.

I am happy to see my friends overcoming their fears, but am torn about the method. What are your thoughts?

Silently Torn


I have some opinions! You may not be surprised to hear this! In fact I already wrote them down more than two years ago, here. And if I do say so myself, that’s some sound advice I gave back then.

As for your friends, I’m not sure if the “you’ve overfit” argument will hold water for them. They are just so excited to finally feel in control and to get laid that nothing will penetrate (har har) their consciousness except if it stops working. I’d suggest laying off hanging out with them until they become humans.


Auntie P

Quiet Thomas,

My own advice parallels Pythia’s fairly closely. Having once been a nerdy, introverted young man who had difficulty talking to the objects of my desire, I understand the appeal of the PUA community. But I think its casting of dating and mating as adversarial, and its embrace of concepts like “friendzoning,” are counter-productive, at least if your goal is a long-term, collaborative, companionate relationship.

And while PUA tactics may serve the goal of getting laid on a regular basis, there are better ways – you can get laid on a regular basis while retaining your dignity and self-respect. As to how, making yourself as intellectually and physically attractive as you reasonably can is certainly important step. Finding and contributing to a community that emphasizes sexual freedom helps a lot. In particular, if you’re a straight man, you should aim to build a culture that neither shames women for their desires nor pressures them to serve anyone else’s. Straight women’s sexual liberation is greatly to your benefit. I also have thoughts on where you can find this type of community, but that’s perhaps beyond the scope of this letter.

One point I might add to Aunt Pythia’s thoughts above: If your friends do still seem to have issues with social anxiety in situations outside of pickup bars, and you’re close enough friends that it would not be intrusive, you might suggest that talking with an actual licensed therapist about that. Social anxiety can interfere with their friendships and careers, not just their efforts to get their wicks dipped. It’s worth addressing this problem at the root, rather than trying to band-aid it with fancy hats and rote conversational routines.



Congratulations, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia and Uncle Aristippus! I hope you’re satisfied, you could have made progress on that project instead.

But as long as you’re already here, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make us very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized

Putting the dick pic on the Snowden story

I’m on record complaining about how journalists dumb down stories in blind pursuit of “naming the victim” or otherwise putting a picture on the story.

But then again, sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do, especially when the story is super complicated. Case in point: the Snowden revelations story.

In the past 2 weeks I’ve seen the Academy Award winning feature length film CitizenFour, I’ve read Bruce Schneier’s recent book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles To Collect Your Data And Control Your World, and finally I watched John Oliver’s recent Snowden episode.

They were all great in their own way. I liked Schneier’s book, it was a quick read, and I’d recommend it to people who want to know more than Oliver’s interview shows us. He’s very very smart, incredibly well informed, and almost completely reasonable (unlike this review).

To be honest, though, when I recommend something to other people, I pick John Oliver’s approach; he cleverly puts the dick pic on the story (you have to reset it to the beginning):

Here’s the thing that I absolutely love about Oliver’s interview. He’s not absolutely smitten by Snowden, but he recognizes Snowden’s goal, and makes it absolutely clear what it means to people using the handy use case of how nude pictures get captured in the NSA dragnets. It is really brilliant.

Compared to Schneier’s book, Oliver is obviously not as informational. Schneier is a world-wide expert on security, and gives us real details on which governmental programs know what and how. But honestly, unless you’re interested in becoming a security expert, that isn’t so important. I’m a tech nerd and even for me the details were sometimes overwhelming.

Here’s what I want to concentrate on. In the last part of the book, Schneier suggests all sorts of ways that people can protect their own privacy, using all sorts of encryption tools and so on. He frames it as a form of protest, but it seems like a LOT of work to me.

Compare that to my favorite part of the Oliver interview, when Oliver asks Snowden (starting at minute 30:28 in the above interview) if we should “just stop taking dick pics.” Snowden’s answer is no: changing what we normally do because of surveillance is a loss of liberty, even if it’s dumb.

I agree, which is why I’m not going to stop blabbing my mouth off everywhere (I don’t actually send naked pictures of myself to people, I think that’s a generational thing).

One last thing I can’t resist saying, and which Schneier discusses at length: almost every piece of data collected about us by our government is more or less for sale anyway. Just think about that. It is more meaningful for people worried about large scale discrimination, like me, than it is for people worried about case-by-case pinpointed governmental acts of power and suppression.

Or, put it this way: when we are up in arms about the government having our dick pics, we forget that so do our phones, and so does Facebook, or Snapchat, not to mention all the backups on the cloud somewhere.

Workplace Personality Tests: a Cynical View

There’s a frightening article in the Wall Street Journal by Lauren Weber about personality tests people are now forced to take to get shitty jobs in customer calling centers and the like. Some statistics from the article include: 8 out of 10 of the top private employers use such tests, and 57% of employers overall in 2013, a steep rise from previous years.

The questions are meant to be ambiguous so you can’t game them if you are an applicant. For example, yes or no: “I have never understood why some people find abstract art appealing.”

At the end of the test, you get a red light, a yellow light, or a green light. Red lighted people never get an interview, and yellow lighted may or may not. Companies cited in the article use the tests to disqualify more than half their applicants without ever talking to them in person.

The argument for these tests is that, after deploying them, turnover has gone down by 25% since 2000. The people who make and sell personality tests say this is because they’re controlling for personality type and “company fit.”

I have another theory about why people no longer leave shitty jobs, though. First of all, the recession has made people’s economic lives extremely precarious. Nobody wants to lose a job. Second of all, now that everyone is using arbitrary personality tests, the power of the worker to walk off the job and get another job the next week has gone down. By the way, the usage of personality tests seems to correlate with a longer waiting period between applying and starting work, so there’s that disincentive as well.

Workplace personality tests are nothing more than voodoo management tools that empower employers. In fact I’ve compared them in the past to modern day phrenology, and I haven’t seen any reason to change my mind since then. The real “metric of success” for these models is the fact that employers who use them can fire a good portion of their HR teams.

Categories: data science, modeling, rant

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