Author Archive

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

Fingers crossed – book coming out next May

As it turns out, it takes a while to write a book, and then another few months to publish it.

I’m very excited today to tentatively announce that my book, which is tentatively entitled Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, will be published in May 2016, in time to appear on summer reading lists and well before the election.

Fuck yeah! I’m so excited.

p.s. Fight for 15 is happening now.

Open Data conference at Berkeley Center for Law & Technology this Friday

I’m excited to be involved with an interesting and important conference this coming Friday at UC Berkeley, held by the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology as well as the student-run journal, the Berkeley Technology Law Journal.

It’s a one day event, entitled Open Data: Addressing Privacy, Security, and Civil Rights Challenges, and it’s got the following blurb:

How can open data promote trust in government without creating a transparent citizenry? Governments at all levels are releasing large datasets for analysis by anyone for any purpose—“Open Data.” Using Open Data, entrepreneurs may create new products and services, and citizens may use it to gain insight into the government. A plethora of time saving and other useful applications have emerged from Open Data feeds, including more accurate traffic information, real-time arrival of public transportation, and information about crimes in neighborhoods.

The program is here, and as you’ll see I’m participating in two ways. First, I’m giving a tutorial first thing in the morning on “doing data science,” which is to say I’m doing my best to explain to a room full of lawyers, in 40 minutes, what it is that modelers actually do with data, and how there might be ethical concerns. Feel free to give me advice on this talk!

Then at the end of the day, I’m in charge of “responding” to Panel 3. Since this is something we don’t have in academic math conferences or talks, I had to ask my lawyer friend what it means to respond, and his answer was that I just take notes during the panel discussion and then I get to comment on stuff I’ve heard. This will be my chance to talk about whether the laws they are talking about, or the proposed changes in the laws, make sense to the world of modeling.

I’m a bit concerned that I simply won’t understand what they’re talking about, since they are experts in this field of security and privacy law which I know very little about, but in any case I’m looking forward to learning a lot on Friday.

Categories: data science, law

Predatory credit score-based insurance fees

I’ve been looking into who uses credit scores – FICO scores or other alternative scores – and I’ve found that the insurance industry is a major user.

Homeowners insurance rates, for example, varies wildly by state depending on what kind of credit score you have, often more than doubling for people with poor credit versus people with excellent credit. This is in spite of the fact that homeowners insurance applies not to the payments of mortgages but rather to the contents of an apartment or home.

Similarly, auto insurance rates vary by credit score, even though someone with a poor credit score isn’t obviously a bad driver. For example, in Maryland, people with bad credit scores can be charged 40% more just for having bad credit scores.

Statistics like this make me wonder, how much of this price discrimination comes from the insurance companies trying to understand and account for actual risk, and how much comes from their understanding that poorer people have fewer options and will simply pay predatory rates?

And just in case you’re a believer in free markets and fair competition, and think such predatory behavior would be whisked away in a competitive market, insurance companies actually target people who don’t shop around and charge them more. In other words, it’s not a free market if not everyone actually has good information.

Tell me if you have more examples like this, I’m a collector!

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Hello, friends. Aunt Pythia is grateful, as usual, to be able to perform her favorite function this morning, namely doling out questionable and downright misleading advice to earnest and vulnerable nerds. She wishes she could do better than that, but there it is.

For example, here’s some terrible advice that Aunt Pythia is offering up, although nobody even asked her: if an ultra-orthodox jewish man comes onto the plane and is assigned to sit next to you but refuses to because you’re a women, and he doesn’t want to worry about the possibility sexual contact, then just go ahead and whip out your tits and rub them against him to let him stop worrying.

Oh, and there’s also this, which I hope you all watch:

Awesome, right? And no, I don’t care if it’s fake. Please signal your agreement by:

    asking 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 AP,

In the spirit of your abominable snow woman pic, here is my favorite joke pertinent to the species. Two snow people are eating. One says to the other, “this tastes like boogers.” The other replies, “it’s carrot cake.”

Real Men Don’t Eat Carrot Cake


No, wait, that’s not better than my favorite snowman joke, which is also shorter: One snowman says to another snowman, “do you smell carrots?”



Aunt Pythia,

OK, update. Communication was a good thing in this case. A very big misunderstanding occurred, actually more than one.

I guess you can answer the question anyhow if you like, since you love sex questions almost as much as sex.

Just put this update in here and tell dudes that if a guy somehow gets the impression that a girl is being shy about getting theirs in return that they should FUCKING ASK.

Also tell them that pulling your hips back a little is not the universal sign of “stop, I’m about to come.”



Wow. What?

It took me a while to parse this letter, but I think I get it now. You are the person whose letter I published last week, which caused a bit of a stir. Quick summary: new guy, he came and then ignored you, what should you do, and I suggested next time you make sure you come first. Some readers were like, yo, talk about it.

Now that I’m against talking about it! I am not against talking about it! I am simply of the opinion that doing is even better than saying in some cases, especially cases where feelings can get easily bruised.

Actually, let me be more nuanced. I think pillow talk is great, and I highly encourage it, but I think you need to time it well, preferably after both people have orgasmed and there’s no immediate reason for defensiveness.

Anyway, back to the update: I really have no idea what the update says, but clearly you seem to have made some progress in some way. Good for you! I have no idea what you are talking about regarding hips. If you mean that he had some weird theory about body language and interpreted yours to mean he was allowed to ignore your orgasm needs, than obviously that is fucked up reasoning. On the other hand, he might have just made that up on the spot to explain the unexplainable. In any case, I hope things are going better.

Good luck, METOO!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. yes, I do love talking about sex as much as sex. I mean, maybe not as much, but it lasts much longer, so yes, as much.


Aunt Pythia,

What do you think of Fit Kids February? I can’t believe we have a major media company fat-shaming children…



I have three things to say.

  1. I can’t believe I am still in February with letters. The way I do Aunt Pythia is from oldest to newest, and I never peek ahead, and it’s exciting that I still have more than a month of backlog. That’s never happened before!
  2. There’s a difference between fat-shaming kids (bad) and convincing kids to exercise (good). Personally I have no problem with pro-fitness messaging as long as there’s no shaming. Do you have examples of that program being shaming?
  3. In any case, thanks for reminding me that I’m looking forward to reading this book: Fat Talk Nation, The Human Toll of America’s War on Fat, written by Susan Greenhalgh, a Harvard anthropology professor. Thank goodness someone is finally working on this issue.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Here’s a little suggestion: there once was man who taught a class on his own time back in California called “Love 1A” after the suicide of one of his students. His name was Leo Buscaglia. During the 1980s his PBS series were very well received – sadly, it appears that a lot of what he spoke about in regards to relationships sort of have fallen by the way side.

May I humbly suggest that those who have such issues at least watch his ‘Speaking of Love’ before they may/may not do something they will regret?

Mid-age Monastic Mainframe Mechanical Miserably Masturbating in Minnesota


This guy is awesome. Here’s part 1 of 6:

My favorite line: “When you think I’m crazy, that gives me lots of leeway for behavior.” This guy was an inspirational speaker before they became full of shit.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am contacting you because lately I have met a personal crisis. I am hoping you can give me some advice because I think you seem to have such a career that you love.

In May I graduate from my bachelor in Computer Science. I have been involved in several research projects as an undergrad and have been certain I wanted to join the academic game. However, not long ago I “discovered” I have never had a proper job, and thought “How can I be so certain about joining academia?”

My reasoning before is that I firstly love computer science and the problems I have been solving in a research setting, as well as the curious environment. However, I also realize I enjoy most challenging mathematical/computational problems… What if life as a data scientist in a company I like/or my own would prove even cooler? Sometimes I just want to leave this safe environment I feel like I am in now, and explore the tech world on my own (but perhaps I am scared?).

I am now working on a project that is essentially a modeling problem, given some cool data. I have been learning a lot more machine learning algorithms and statistics. I really like this and it makes me want to become a data scientist. I am a very impulsive decision maker- I always listen to my (stochastic?) stomach. And these days my stomach is telling me to go out after I graduate and check out a different environment.

I know that my family and people now expect me to do a master etc (and I have applied), and in a way I also expect that of myself because I have wanted it for so long and set these goals. I think there is only one of the masters I applied to that I truly want to do. It is hard to remove these influences and think straight. My worry is that I don’t do something that truly excites me.

I think I am a tough person and should be handling this uncertainty well- but I just end up in circles and it drives me nuts, especially when people say “in the end everything will be ok”. The end????!

Hence I am contacting you Aunt Pythia. I just want some advice from your wise past on how to deal with these ticking issues that occupy too much thinking time these days. Did you always know you wanted to do academia as an undergraduate? Any advice to a random confused 21 year old who is trying to make sense of randomness is much appreciated.

Miss Stochastic Process

Dear Miss Stochastic,

Great name. Also, I’m possibly the worst person in the world to give advice on this, but that won’t stop me.

Go get the masters, maybe a Ph.D.; it won’t be the last thing you do, and you have lots of time. You can try it out and see how it goes.

Instead of thinking about what you want to do for the rest of your life, do something that you are likely to enjoy for at least a while, with a strict promise to yourself to quit and change directions once you stop liking it.

That’s not to say you should give up at the first sign of trouble or difficulty. By no means am I saying that. If anything it’s the opposite: a challenge is a reason to stick with it. At the first sign of boredom, however, you should start looking around.

Good luck!

Auntie P


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:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

The achievement gap: whose problem is it?

On Monday night I went to see Boston College professor Henry Braun speak about the Value-Added Model for teachers (VAM) at Teachers College, right here in my hood (hat tip Sendhil Revuluri).

I wrote about VAM recently, and I’m not a fan, so I was excited for the event. Here’s the poster from Monday:



The room was not entirely filled with anti-VAM activists such as myself, even though it was an informed audience. In fact one of the people I found myself talking to before the talk started mentioned that he’d worked on Wall Street, where they “culled” 10% of the workforce regularly – during downsizing phases – and how fantastic it was, how it kept standards high.

I mentioned that the question is, who gets decide which 10% and why, and he responded that it was all about profit, naturally. Being an easily provoked person, I found myself saying, well right, that’s the definition of success for Wall Street, and we can see how that’s turned out for everyone. He stared blankly at me.

I told that story because it irks me, still, how utterly unscathed individuals feel, who were or are part of the Wall Street culture. They don’t see any lesson to learn from that whole mess.

But even more than that, the same mindset which served the country so poorly is now somehow being held up as a success story, and applied to other fields like public education.

That brings me to the talk itself. Professor Braun did a very good job of explaining the VAM, and the inconsistencies, and the smallish correlations and unaccountable black box nature of the test.

But he then did more: he drew up a (necessarily vague) picture of the entire process by which a teacher is “assessed,” of which VAM plays a varying role, and he asked some important questions: how does this process affect the teaching profession? Does the scrutiny of each teacher in this way make students learn more? Does it make bad teachers get better? Does it make good teachers stay in the profession?

Great questions, but he didn’t even stop there. He went on to point something out that I’d never directly considered. Namely, why do we think individual responsibility – i.e. finger pointing at individual teachers – is going to improve the overall system? Here he suggested that there’s been a huge split in the profession between those who want to improve educational systems and those who want to assess teachers (and think that will “close the achievement gap”). The people who want to improve education talk about increasing communication between teachers in a school or between schools in a district, and they talk about improving and strengthening communities and cultures of learning.

By contrast the “assess the teachers” crowd is convinced that holding teachers individually accountable for the achievement of their students is the only possible approach. Fuck the school culture, fuck communicating with other teachers in the school. Fuck differences in curriculum or having old books or not having enough books due to unequal funding.

It got me thinking, especially since I read that book last week, The New Prophets of Capitalism (review here). That book explained how hollow Oprah’s urging to live a perfect life is to people whose situations are beyond their control. The problem with Oprah’s reasoning is that it ignores real systemic problems and issues that radically affect certain parts of the population and make it much harder to take her advice. It’s context free in a world where context is more and more meaningful.

So, whose problem is the achievement gap? Is it owned in tiny pieces by every teacher who dares to enter the profession? Is it owned by schools or school systems? Or is it owned by all of us, by the country as a whole? And if it is, how are we going to start working together to solve it?

Categories: education, modeling

Everyone hates college administrators

If you were wondering why I didn’t blog yesterday, which you probably weren’t (confession: I don’t read other peoples’ blogs and I don’t listen to any podcasts. So I would never, ever ask anyone to read my blog or listen to my podcast), it was because I was completely confused and irritated by this NYTimes opinion piece on the rising cost of college, written by University of Colorado Law Professor Paul Campos.

I really think the Times needs to either have footnotes or hyperlinks in their opinion pieces, because this guy was playing so fast and loose with his numbers that I had really no idea what he was talking about most of the time. That’s saying something considering that this, the cost of college and its causes, is something I have spent many hours thinking about and researching.

So what happened was, I didn’t have time to completely formulate my opposition to why his reasoning was muddled and confusing. I spent way too much time trying to figure out where he was getting his data. Waste of time.

Good news, though, my Slate Money co-host Jordan Weissman has done all that work for us, in his piece aptly entitled The New York Times Offers One of the Worst Explanations You’ll Read of Why College Is So Expensive. Who says procrastination doesn’t work?

As usual, if you’ve ever listened to my podcast (and this isn’t a request for you to do so!), I don’t agree completely with Jordan. However, my delta of agreement with Jordan is very manageable compared to the delta of disagreement I had with Campos. Basically I would quibble with laying any of the blame at the feet of instructors, but since he barely does that, let’s just go with his awesome take-down.

Take-down of what? Well, Campos basically hates college administrators, and pretends there’s no other problems in the world except them. It’s a mistake that he doesn’t have to make.

I mean really, who doesn’t hate college administrators? As a former college administrator myself, I know it’s universal; I certainly hated myself the entire time.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no other factors at all. Reduced public money for colleges is in fact a huge problem, especially when you pair it with the increased federal aid money going to students at corrupt for-profit colleges. Corinthian obtained $1.4 billion in federal grant and loan dollars in 2010 alone, more than the 10 University of California campuses combined for that same year. This system is in terrible need of repair.

Instead of simply hating on college admin, or rather, in addition to hating on admin, can we start thinking about an alternative no-frills state college system that is truly affordable and gives honest and basic instructions without trying to compete on the US News & World Reports stage?

Categories: education, rant

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