Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia is very sorry to be late, and especially since last week she was away on vacation (in the woods! no wifi! many bugs!).

She knows her readers misses her tremendously, and the feeling is mutual. In order to make up for her tardiness, Aunt Pythia has made everyone banana chocolate chip pancakes:


Got a fork and a knife? And milk and coffee and syrup and strawberries too? Good, let’s eat up. And, before you leave,

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all 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 like that Malties cereal in the mornings: I’m sure you have them over there too – little rectangular lattices of about 18x21mm side length. For convenient pouring in my bleary morning state, as I open a fresh box, I transfer the as much of the contents as possible to a large plastic dispenser, from which I pour a serving each morning. The container I use has a rectangular base of about 80x205mm.

What troubles me is this: when I pour the cereal in, it of course tumbles randomly into the container. A boxful never quite fits. Would it make much difference if the lattices were neatly stacked in nice horizontal strata?

If I wasn’t so hung up about this from the moment I wake each day, I’m sure I’d be more receptive to my partner’s early morning advances, too!

Yours in desperation,
Get A Bigger Server, OR Get All Malties Stacked


I keep thinking your sign-off means something, but I can’t figure out what.

Also, I keep thinking there’s some deeper meaning to your question, but I can’t figure that out either. I mean, if you wanted me to estimate how much space you’d save by stacking your cereal carefully in a storage box, at the very least you’d have to tell me how tall each little Maltie is and how tall your storage container is. I suppose I could try to eyeball a solution to the problem using those measurements as variables, but then you’d be overestimating how much work I’m willing to do here.

In fact, without knowing the height of a Maltie, I wouldn’t even know how to neurotically arrange them to save space; lying them in rows, flat on the bottom, would leave space along the edges, and I don’t know how many more you can fit by arranging them on their side without knowing more.

Anyhoo, I think it’s sufficient to say that yes, you can definitely save space by doing this. And at this point, I think you own me a picture of your perfectly arranged storage box. After that, by all means, be receptive to your partner’s advances.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a PhD student in physics, where I am pretty much the only person who wears a dress – between men and a few women that there is at the department. I am telling this to emphasize that I like being girly. But, I realized last weekend that I am not girly enough. I had a get-together with my long-time girlfriends (we all live in different continents now), and was judged on pretty much every piece of my appearance from not-plucking-my-facial-hair-good-enough to why-am-I-not-doing-something-about-my-misshapen-teeth.

Another thing was when we were discussing birth control: they are dead against pills, or IUD, because these things directly control your hormones which then controls your periods and a woman having her period is the most natural thing on Earth. And what if you can’t have children because of that, how would I forgive myself knowing that I could’ve just used condoms and prevented that?

I find these people very beautiful, fun, and actually strong women because they can pose for a picture and not worry about opening their mouths too much not to show their teeth.

Anyhoo, my question is: Knowing that I shouldn’t conform deep inside, how do I actually feel neutral about having all these not-so-beautiful stuff about my body? Or is it just easier to wax every week?

Have An Influence pRoblem

Dear HAIR,

This is a seriously great question. Plus, nice sign-off. I even know what it means.

Here’s the thing about rules. Rules often exist for a purpose. But I like to challenge rules, and to do so I try to backtrack to their original purpose, and then decide whether:

  1. the rule was a good one given the purpose, and
  2. whether the purpose matters to me at all, and
  3. whether it matters more to me than it bothers me to follow the rules.

Let’s use this approach for the stuff you’re dealing with pertaining to the rules around personal grooming and general “girliness” or “womanliness.”


Women are supposed to keep their hair off of everything except their head. That is to say, they get pushback for having hairy armpits, hairy legs, and even hairy private parts. Conversely, they get push-back if they shave their heads. Those are the rules. Oh, and they’re only supposed to have hair on the part of their heads away from the face. Hair on the face is to be shaved or plucked.

What’s the purpose behind this? It’s a tricky one, but I think it basically boils down to looking young. Men, we are told, are attracted to young women, so women have pressure to appear young. Young people’s hair is very fine, and almost invisible, so to appear super young we should appear hairless.

What’s strange about this purpose is that men are actually attracted to women, not girls, so they should be comfortable with at least a certain amount of hair, unless they’ve been talked out of it somehow. It’s clearly at least somewhat a cultural fad, perhaps even created by shaving and grooming companies that want to make more money off of selling products to women.

So, going back to my approach, I feel like the rule that we have to remain hairless-looking (except for some parts of our head) is kind of random and maybe even commercial. It’s a bad rule. Also, the purpose doesn’t matter much to me, because although I like men being attracted to me well enough, I’m okay with self-selected “I like hair” men.

I do have an exception, however, for facial hair, perhaps because it is so closely associated with oldness and therefore unsexiness. To be honest, I don’t feel completely happy with my own chin-hair issues, and I wish I could transcend them. I strive to be that old lady with a beard, wearing purple hats and poking young people on the subway with my umbrella when they misbehave.


Good teeth have historically been a very important signal of nutrition. Read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and you’ll see how incredibly obvious terrible nutrition was in Europe in the mid-1700’s. Very poor women had no teeth, and the saying “a tooth for every child” was very real.

Nowadays, not so much, but we still rate each other’s health and wealth on how many and how straight our teeth are. Oh, and how white they are, which is again a marketing miracle. So the purpose behind giving you shit about your teeth is that people will judge your health and your wealth badly if you don’t.

Is this a good rule? Should you care? I think it depends on how crooked your teeth really are, and how much it matters to the people you’re trying to impress. If you’re an actress, it matters a lot. But if, in your profession, you are somewhere in the average range, give it no further thought. And I’d wager that, in physics, standards are pretty low.


They want you to not take hormones because “having your period is natural” and “you might not be able to conceive afterwards. To be honest neither of those reasons sound convincing, first because first I have never heard of the pill making it harder to conceive, except maybe the copper IUD but it doesn’t sound like you mean that one, and second because historically women have had far fewer periods due to a combination of more pregnancies, longer breastfeeding, and poorer nutrition.

However, I personally have reasons I’d never take hormones, so I will mention them here. I have experience both with pills, which I’ve been on three times in my life, and the Mirena IUD, which I also used for 2 years. In all of these hormonal experiments, I have been more easily depressed, less ambitious, and generally uninterested in everything. Whenever I get off the hormones, I get incredibly energized, horny, and ambitious. I know things affect women differently, so I won’t speak for everyone, but my experiences have convinced me never to do it again.

And of course, the convenience of not having to worry about getting pregnant is pretty great, so you have to weigh things against each other. There is no perfect solution to anything.


One last thing, although you didn’t ask. What’s the purpose of a bunch of women getting together and criticizing each other? Not to say they didn’t also support you, I’m sure they did.

But it’s a general “rule” that women do this, so their must be an associated purpose. I think it has something to do with reinforcing the sense that they aren’t wasting their time plucking their facial hair, getting their teeth straightened, and posing for pictures whilst having their natural periods. And that reinforced sense also feeds into why they give off a sense of being “strong” women.

The truth is, though, that it is kind of a waste of time, often, but it’s a difficult subject to breach in certain company. In any case I wanted to let you know that you’re probably doing it right – you’re enjoying your girliness in your own way and at your own level, but not at the level that your friends expect. In my book, that means you’re enjoying it but not wasting time on it, so well done!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Auntie P,

So I’ve recently started sleeping and developing emotional bonds with someone. All great, everything clicking the way it should, so much so that we both feel half our age, which would put us back in the heady days of high school – read “we were unprepared for what we both knew was going to happen and did the rumpus unprotected.” To be clear, pregnancy protection is in place but barriers were not.

My question isn’t “how do you go to the other person and say that we’re going to go back to using condoms”, because the answer is to look the other person in the eye and say “I think we need to go back to using condoms”. No, the question is, when my partner probes my thinking on this matter, how do I navigate the undercurrent of not being sure that my partner isn’t possibly a carrier of an STI, and/or saying that they should not feel secure that I amn’t? Going barrier-less functions in the modern world, I’d say, as a fairly high-trust-threshold signal, but is there a better way to answer the question “why should we use condoms” than “because I don’t fully trust you yet, or because you shouldn’t fully trust me yet, or some nonlinear combination of these”?

Complicating factor: hubby has in the past experimented with non-monogamy, though they found it not to their liking; and I’d like at least the option of non-monogamy to be open to both of us going forward. These are matters we’re working out, but aren’t urgently crying for final resolution. Let’s just say that at the moment, we’re occupying each other’s time quite capably.

Trusty Lusty

Dear Trusty,

I’ve read this letter a bunch of times, and I’m still a bit confused.

Let me start with what I think – think – is happening.

  1. You are married.
  2. You are also having an affair.
  3. You are sexually active with both your husband and your lover.
  4. You recently didn’t use a condom with your lover.
  5. You are wondering how to “go back to using condoms” without having an awkward conversation about trust.

If the above is all correct, you have put yourself and your husband at risk of STD’s. I’m not sure your sign-off is entirely warranted.

As for advice, yes I have some: an awkward conversation, pronto. Tell your lover that you would love to go with him to a testing facility to make sure you haven’t exchanged any STD’s. Feel free to mention that an STD could have come from you, and that he’s not the only suspect. If you feel like it would be an easier conversation, suggest that your husband has experimented with non-monogamy in the past and so there’s yet a fourth person, who neither of you know, in the mix.

But in any case, even if you never convince your lover to get tested, go get tested yourself, and be sure to use condoms from now on. Also, get tested again in 6 months.

Aunt Pythia


Dear AP,

What do you think about hacking ethics? In particular, I’m thinking of this article, which details how some students sneaked a peak at their admission results by hacking a website.

I’m tempted to side with the students against the B-schools because, y’know, business schools. But, then I realize that these applicants, if successful, will become business school students. So, have to be against them, too.

At the root of it, though, hacking things is such a great part of nerdy engineering culture and the best way to learn how things really work (maybe?). Feels like hacks should be celebrated when they aren’t being used for nefarious purposes. And what harm comes to the business schools if applicants know the decisions early? Weigh that against the benefit to the applicants of being able to plan their lives, like buying a Duke sweatshirt and renting an apartment in Durham (maybe?).

Crotchety in Seattle

Dear Crotchety,

I am OK with them getting kicked out of B-School because this wasn’t really hacking, this was cheating. They didn’t even figure it out, for god’s sake, they just followed instructions! That’s not hacking. Plus it’s also a sign of dumbness that they thought they could get away with it.

I’m with you that hacking is a fun side of nerdy engineering culture, but I much prefer hacks that have mischievous or even higher goals attached to them for me to defend the hackers. Aaron Schwartz I’ll defend, a disappointed Sloan School student I won’t.

Auntie P


People, people! Aunt Pythia loves you so much. And she knows that you love her. She feels the love. She really really does.

Well, here’s your chance to spread your Aunt Pythia love to the world! Please ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Speaking next week at the Personal Democracy Forum

I’ve been invited to give a short presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum, which will be held next Thursday and Friday at NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place.

The bad news is my talk is 12 minutes. That’s super short. The good news is I’m speaking in the big room, along with other interesting speakers including Cory Doctorow.

The theme of this year’s PDF is “civic tech.” And since I really don’t know what that term means, I’m looking forward to learning. For my part, I’m interpreting it to mean “how technology and data usage affects the public.” I have a lot to say about that subject, and it’s mostly skeptical.

The title of my talk, like my book, is Weapons of Math Destruction, and they did a little interview of me in advance of the conference, which you can read here.

Tickets to the Personal Democracy Forum are still available but are expensive. If they do what they did last year, they will eventually have the talks available on video.

Categories: Uncategorized

Why not a ravelry for people who work out?

Do you know about ravelry? If you’re a knitter or crocheter (or weaver or spinner) you probably do.

It’s kind of like a Facebook for knitters, but much less creepy, because it’s the exact kind of information you want to be sharing, and the exact kind of showcasing of others that you want to be peering at.

It’s an amazing success story. Started in 2007 by a husband and wife team, it now boasts more than 4 million users worldwide, representing 5 billion kilometers of yarn. Each person who is registered gets to create a profile consisting of their projects, complete with notes or even a blog about their trials and tribulations making it, and of course lots of fantastic pictures of their work in progress.

A user can also show off their “stash,” which is to say their backup yarn, which they can trade with others, and they can have a list of favorite projects or designs of others, and even a library list of books and patterns that they have. There’s ample opportunity to comment on how beautiful other people’s projects are – and knitters are very generous with praise – and there are forums for general discussions.

One last thing. There are group projects, where knitters do projects together, often led by a designer who “surprises” them with little pieces of the pattern at a time. It’s a fun idea called a “knit-along.”

OK, so here’s the idea. Why doesn’t someone start a ravelry for people who work out?

I’m convinced that people who work out are almost like knitters. They have little projects that they like to obsess over, they plan them extensively, they like to keep track of progress, they love talking to other worker-outers about their plans, and they like to do stuff in groups led by a master worker-outer.

I’m sure there currently are discussion forums for people who love keeping track of their miles or whatever, but I’m pretty sure nothing as extensive and as thoughtful as ravelry exists. I’m talking about a place where you create a “workout profile” and upload your fitbit data if you want, to create graphs of your cumulative miles, and your friends who are also training for that triathlon can also put their graphs up, and you can discuss workout clothes and which weighted vests are the best.

I know a little bit about this world because once I competed in a sprint triathlon and it was definitely as obsessive as my lifelong knitting hobby. Plus, now a good friend of mine works out a lot and constantly wants to talk to me about weighted vests, and I’m always thinking to myself, “there must be a community somewhere for this guy to talk about weighted vests!? Why not a ravelry for workouters?”.

Just think: instead of knit-alongs, you’d have surprise workout regiments (that sounds kind of fun!). Instead of pictures of half-done works in progress, you’d have graphs and pictures of sweaty t-shirts (that sounds kind of gross, but I still think people would dig it). And instead of completed projects where the knitted sweater is showcased on the cute kid, you’d have a little electronic badge saying, “Amy completed the New York City Triathlon!”

In terms of business model, it would be a lot like ravelry: free for users, funded by incredible ad opportunities for things that obsessive people actually really want, when they want them. Although it’s fair to say that the ads I see for silk/cashmere blend yarns that appear on ravelry are kind of predatory. But they definitely work.

Free business idea for y’all, I hope you like it.

Categories: Uncategorized

Left Forum this weekend

The annual Left Forum conference is this weekend, Friday to Sunday, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, located on 59th at 10th. Formerly the Socialist Scholars Conference, the Left Forum brings together lefty scholars like Noam Chomsky and Cornel West as well as organizers and activists.

The theme for this year’s conference is “No Justice, No Peace: Confronting the Crises of Capitalism and Democracy.” There’s also an emphasis on the #BlackLivesMatter movement and understanding what happened in Ferguson, as well as stuff going on in Greece.

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 7.44.17 AM

I’ll be participating in two panels. First, a Saturday panel (3:15pm-5:00pm) called What is Occupy Up To?, to be held in room1.100, with the following description:

The occupation is over but groups with roots in Zuccotti Park are working actively in many ways. Representatives of some of these groups will discuss their current efforts and we will look for a participatory discussion of how the movement can be effective. Committed at this time: OccuEvolve – Sumumba Sobukwe, Occupy the SEC – Neil Taylor, OWS Alternative Banking – Cathy O’Neil, Debt Collective / Strike Debt — Luke Herrine Copies of the book Occupy Finance will be available free to attendees while supplies last.

Second, a regular Alt Banking meeting on Sunday from 10am-noon, to be held in room 1.119, which has the following description:

Occupy Alternative Banking proposes to run one of its typical weekly Sunday meetings as a Left Forum workshop, as it did the last two years. You can learn about us at But in brief, we grew out of Open University sessions at the Occupy protests, and have been meeting ever since. We are open to all comers, and meet every Sunday afternoon at Columbia University to discuss current events and theory related to the dysfunction of the financial system, develop strategies, and endeavor to implement them. Our meeting-structure involves listing some topics for possible discussion, allowing attendees to add others, and then voting on two or three to discuss (in assembly-style format) during the meeting. We believe our two previous appearances at the Left Forum were very successful, both in terms of how they were received, and in their bringing some wonderful new consistent members to our weekly meetings and community. We propose to run a similar workshop this year. Other presenters will include Natasha Blakely and Thessy Mehrain, both of Occupy Alternative Banking.

Categories: Uncategorized

Algorithms And Accountability Of Those Who Deploy Them

Slate recently published a piece entitled You Can’t Handle the (Algorithmic) Truth, written by Adam Elkus, a Ph.D. student in computational social science at George Mason University (hat tip Chris Wiggins).

In it, Elkus criticizes those who criticize unaccountable algorithms. He suggests that algorithms are simply the natural placeholders of bureaucracy, and we should aim our hatred at bureaucracy instead of algorithms. In his conclusion he goes further in defending the machines:

If computers implementing some larger social value, preference, or structure we take for granted offends us, perhaps we should do something about the value, preference, or structure that motivates the algorithm. After all, algorithms can be reprogrammed. It is much harder—but not impossible—to recode social systems and institutions than computers. Perhaps the humans who refuse to act for what they believe in while raising fear about computers are the real ones responsible for the decline of our agency, choice, and control—not the machines. They just can’t handle the (algorithmic) truth.

I’ve read this paragraph a few times and it’s still baffling to me. I think he’s suggesting that people complaining about the use of unaccountable algorithms are causing a problem by “refusing to act.” And since I count myself as one of the people in question, I’m having difficulty understanding what it is exactly that I’m refusing to do.

I’ve never met anyone in this field who imagines that algorithms sprung up out of the computers themselves, ready to act in an unaccountable way. No: it is well understood that algorithms were designed, implemented, and deployed by human beings. The unaccountability of algorithms is moreover a feature, not a bug, for such people, and is often entirely deliberate – the algos represent new ways of punishing and rewarding people without having to do it in person and without taking responsibility.

For example, think about the Value-Added Model for teachers, which I have written about extensively, or evidence-based sentencing and paroling. In the first case, the algorithms conveniently, if randomly, assesses teachers with an “objective” tool that the teachers do not understand and cannot question, in the ironic name of teacher accountability. In the case of evidence-based sentencing, the judges can use and then point to the models without fear of being held personally responsible for decisions.

Now, here’s where I’ll agree with Elkus. We can’t pretend that it’s the “algorithm’s fault.” it is most definitely the fault of the people who decide to trust the algorithm and act automatically on the basis of the algorithm’s output [1].

Where I disagree with Elkus is the idea that there’s nothing new here. Algorithms have given bureaucrats a new set of tools for their arsenals, ones that are naturally intimidating, opaque, and which carry a false sense of objectivity. We should absolutely question their use and, to be sure, the underlying goals and assumptions of the people in power who deploy them.

1. So, if we found that the Google search algorithm were racist, it would not be the algorithm’s fault. It would instead be the fault of Google employees to continue to deploy its flawed algorithm. I would add that, given the various ways that Google algorithms can go wrong, and their widespread use and impact, it is the responsibility of Google to monitor its algorithms for such flaws.

Categories: Uncategorized

Kansas redistributes money from the poor to the banks

Take a look at this article (hat tip Felix Salmon), which has me absolutely raging this morning, about new legislation in Kansas that prevents poor people on welfare from taking out more than $25 per day using their state-issued debit cards.

To be clear, you have to round up to the nearest $20 if you want to take out money from an ATM, so that’s really the limit.

And to be clear, there’s a $1 fee to take out money, and then typically an extra $2.50 fee if you don’t have a bank account, which many of the affected people do not.

So altogether, they’re giving $3.50 for every $20 of their welfare benefits, which I’d characterize as a bank tax of 17.5%. Because poor people don’t need that money, never mind the convenience of paying their actual bills.

For fuck’s sake, Kansas.

Categories: Uncategorized

Nobody can keep track of all the big bank fraud cases #TBTF #OWS

If you’re anything like me, this week’s announcement that 5 banks – JP Morgan, Citigroup, Barclays, RBS, and UBS – have pleaded guilty to manipulating foreign exchange markets is both confusing and more than vaguely familiar.

It was a classic price fixing cartel, and it went along these lines: these big banks had all the business, being so big, and the traders got on a chat room and agreed to manipulate prices to make more money. The myth of the free market was suspended, and eventually they got caught, in large part because of leaving stupid messages like “If you aint cheating, you aint trying”.

But hold on, I could have sworn that these same banks, or a similar list of them, got in trouble for this already. Or was that LIBOR interest rate manipulation? Or was that for mortgage fraud? Or was that for robosigning?

Shit. I mean, here I am, someone who is actively taking an interest in financial reform, and I actually can’t remember all the fines, settlements, and fake guilty pleas to criminal charges.

I say “fake” because – yet again – nobody has gone to jail, and the banks found guilty have immediately been given waivers by the SEC to continue business as usual. According to this New York Times article, the Justice Department even delayed announcing the charges by a week so those waivers could be granted in time so that business wouldn’t even be disrupted. For fuck’s sake.

But again, same thing as all the other “big bank events” that we’ve grown tired of in the last few years. What it comes down to is fines, but then again, the continued quantitative easing has essentially been a gift of cash to those same banks, so I wouldn’t even count the fines as meaningful.

In fact I’d call this whole thing theater. And really repetitive, boring theater at that, where we all nod off because every scene is the same and they’ve turned up the heat too high.

The saddest part is that, given how very little we’ve improved about the integrity of the markets – I’d argue that we’ve actually gone backwards on incentives not to commit fraud, since now everything has been formalized as pathetic – we are bound to continue to see big banks committing fraud and then not getting any actual punishment. And we will all be so bored we won’t even keep track, because nobody can.

Categories: #OWS, finance

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