Author Archive

Data Justice Launches!

I’m super excited to announce that I’m teaming up with Nathan Newman and Frank Pasquale on a newly launched project called Data Justice and subtitled Challenging Rising Exploitation and Economic Inequality from Big Data.

Nathan Newman is the director of Data Justice and is a lawyer and policy advocate. You might remember his work with racial and economic profiling of Google ads. Frank Pasquale is a law professor at the University of Maryland and the author of a book I recently reviewed called The Black Box Society.

The mission for Data Justice can be read here and explains how we hope to build a movement on the data justice front by working across various disciplines like law, computer science, and technology. We also have a blog and a press release which I hope you have time to read.

Categories: data science, modeling

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Dearest readers, do you know how much Aunt Pythia loves you and misses you during the week? So much that she’s baked everyone a pie for pi day:

Confession: I stole this pic off the web. I could never make a pie that perfect.

Confession: I stole this pic off the web. I could never make a pie that perfect.

According to my calculations, it’s about to be a once-in-a-century moment to celebrate the number pi, so please grab a fork.

Also, you know what they say about April showers bringing May flowers, right? Well now it’s March showers too. It’s raining impressively outside. It’s all good though, because Aunt Pythia is counting on the rain to wash away all those nasty cigarette butts that have emerged from the dirty melted snow. Yuck!

A final word before we get started: this column doesn’t just happen, it’s all about you guys asking your very serious and important questions (no fewer than two sex-related questions this week!) and Aunt Pythia’s terrible and poorly thought out advice, and then of course the commenters who correct me. In other words, it’s just like public radio except more titillating.

All this to say that, after you read today’s column, 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 met my boyfriend last spring. We’re both STEM majors and had a DiffEq class together. We quickly learned to integrate. We also found ways to locate the local maximum quickly when needed or to calculate the slow, asymptotic convergence to the major axis. My problem is not with Jim.

We each live in apartments off campus even though our families are in the local metro area. We have visited each other’s homes many times. In late spring when it got warm we began going to Jim’s mother’s house on the weekend to swim in the pool and get some sun.

Mrs. W is divorced and she dates frequently. Jim has told me she has no serious relationships, but he thinks she has several FWBs. She is a partner in a prestigious law firm. She works long hours so Jim and I frequently have the uninterrupted use of the house.

One Saturday in June, we went out to the house to go swimming. When I walked out to the pool, I saw Mrs. W sunning herself. Dressed in a tankini with boy shorts, her mid-forties, well-toned body looked fabulous. She got up to greet me as always. She usually gives me a collarbone-to-collarbone hug and a kiss on the cheek. This time the hug was a full-body hug and a wet kiss landed on the side of my neck. Additionally, one of her hands ended up low on my back; so low that her pinky rested on my bikini bottom right at the top of my butt. The full-body hug, kiss on the neck and hand low on my back became her standard greeting whenever we met.

On Labor Day Jim and I decided to have an end-of-summer pool closing party. I drove out to the house early to help set up. When I got there, Mrs. W greeted me at the door with her hug and told me that Jim had run to the store to get drinks and snacks. She followed me to Jim’s room where I stripped off the shorts and tank top I had worn over my bikini. She hugged me again, telling me how glad she was that Jim and I were dating. It was her standard hug, except this time her hand slipped inside my bikini bottom until her fingers rested over the top of my crack. After about 5 seconds, she jumped back apologizing profusely for being clumsy.

In December she announced that she was giving me clothes for Christmas. We went shopping at a very upscale department store. We selected several outfits for me to try on. She also selected four halter tops that she said she would need when she and an FWB went to Aruba for New Year’s. We entered the dressing room and I eagerly began mixing and matching tops and bottoms. Mrs. W took off her blouse and bra to try on the halter tops. Soon we had chosen the outfits for me. Mrs. W had selected the tops she wanted also. The last top did not look good against her skin and she suggested that I try it on.

She took it off and handed it to me. When I had it on, she said it looked great and we would get it so I could wear it for Jim in the spring. I slipped back out of it. Mrs. W told me how much she enjoyed taking me shopping and gave me a hug. We were both topless and she held me for half a minute or more. I was surprised at how nice it felt.

Since that shopping trip, Mrs. W has featured in some of my solo fantasies.

My birthday is coming up in early March. As my birthday gift, Mrs. W has invited me to go on a ‘girl’s only’ weekend to a resort spa. I’m excited about the possibilities yet a little scared to go.

Now my two questions: (1) Am I reading her signals right? (2) She’s my boyfriend’s mom!?!?

Befuddled In MAssachusetts Yet Bewitched and Excited


Holy. I can’t, even. I mean, for fuck’s sake.

How long did it take you to concoct that story?! That is absolutely amazing. You should totally start writing singles for Amazon Kindle. You are really miles ahead of your competition. I’m sweaty over here on a chilly rainy late winter morning.

Plus, the math at the beginning, and the sign-off at the end. Just phenomenal. Maybe my favorite all-time Aunt Pythia submission (har har).

Hey, you know what? Instead of answering your ridiculous and fabricated questions at the end, can I instead ask you a question?

Thanks, here it is: can you come over and hang out with me and tell me how you come up with that stuff? I’m all ears. My email is on my “about” page. Please let me know it’s really you by sending me the next chapter.

And, just in case you are for real, I’ll just say, my advice is to write down what happens next and send it to me via email (which is on my “about” page). Because there’s really nothing at stake here, no morals to worry about, at least that I can see from my vantage point of heavy breathing voyeur.

So yes, my question and my answer amount to the same thing: SEND ME MORE!


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Do you think that we will ever see legal, on-line gambling or will the gambling interests be able to continue to block it? There is a Costa Rican website that we are allowed to use, but I don’t understand why poker players can’t gamble legally? I have thought, at least, that is still true.


Dear Sonambulist,

Huh? What? Gambling? Not sure, completely distracted. Please do look that up.

Oh wait, it looks complicated. As in, you’d probably not get in trouble as a user, but if you wanted to set something up you might want to be prepared to flee quickly if and when your site is discovered. Also, it might depend whether you can convincingly argue that poker is a game of skill, not of luck. Personally I have been very very consistently unlucky with poker, so I’d say luck.

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My Office Cat likes to sit on my keyboard and set in front of the display. What can I do? He needs to be in the office, because his litter box is in the office closet. Also, he likes to be with me.

Missing Link

Dear ML,

I think you’ve confused me for a cat person. I am not. I am a dog person. Dog people don’t understand cat people in various aspects, and this would be one of those aspects. From my perspective, you have a few choices:

  1. find a new job (with dog people),
  2. bring your dog to work,
  3. figure out a way of making your keyboard less comfortable, or
  4. figure out a way of making something else more comfortable for the cat than your keyboard. For example, build the cat a place to play. Be this guy, who is super awesome and makes me love cat people. Then, after you build the cat palace for 15 years or so, you can get your work done.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Total egghead here. I want to write an op-ed, but I’d like to find some data to support my arguments. (“For example, at Big State U, precalculus courses make up 80% of the courses taught, and they’re taught largely by mathematics graduate students.”) But the problem I’m facing as an out-of-date mathematician is this: how the hell do you actually get your paws on data?! Surely public universities should make such data available…somewhere. Right? Or am I nutters?

Upstate Upstart

Dear UU,

Good question, and the answer is I’m not sure. Readers?

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Sorry in advance for any TMI. I’m a 20-year-old female nerd suffering from a common sexual dysfunction: it’s a chronic muscle spasm in my nether regions which makes any form of penetration incredibly painful. I’ve never been able to insert so much as a tampon without discomfort.

I can certainly experience pleasure in other ways, but as a horny and regrettably heterosexual college student, this has really thrown a wrench in my romantic/sex life. I exude the personality of someone who’d have a lot of casual sex, but I frequently pass on hookups I’d otherwise pursue for fear of embarrassing myself or disappointing the person in question. I’ve had some very understanding partners in the past, but I’m single right now and about to move to a new place without any old flames.

Obviously you’re not a physical therapist and can’t fix my actual problem, but I guess my question is, is it impolite to pick up dudes at a bar or party with no intention of letting anything more than a finger in my cooch? How transparent should I be about my issue? How weird will I come off as if I dodge the act without going into detail about why? Do you have any ideas for a smooth exit strategy?

Again… sorry for TMI…

Venture Among Girls Instead Now? Invoke Spinsterhood? More Uncomfortable Sex?


ARE YOU KIDDING?!!? Aunt Pythia does not understand the meaning of the phrase “TMI.” Plus, she loves learning about new things, although this specific thing is bad news, and she’s very sorry you have to deal with it.

As for your question. It is very very clear in my head that you have not made any vaginal promises to a man just by picking him up in a bar. There are all sorts of ways to enjoy time together, clothed or naked, without doing something that would cause you pain. You have no apologies to make, and neither do you have explanations.

I do think you might want to be prepared to offer pleasure in other ways, but goodness knows you already have a long list of such methods. There’s not a drunk male alive that wouldn’t be satisfied with that list. If you get to know someone well, and it’s actually a sober 5th date, then of course you might feel like explaining what’s up. But absolutely do it on your own time, and don’t stand for anything except gratitude.

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:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Earth’s aphelion and perihelion

Sometimes the stuff I think about gets me down. I mean, jeez, I think about cynical stuff all the time, and I need to rest my brain sometimes.

When that happens, I sometimes fantasize about really long-term things that happen in the solar system or even the universe. It gives me perspective.

One of my favorite videos to watch at these moments is this one, which always blows my mind. The take-away: nothing is permanent unless there is actually a physical law forcing it to be. Here it is:

p.s. I vote for “tropical year” because I love analemmas.

p.p.s. Looking forward to Vega being the pole star once again.

p.p.p.s. This came up because my husband and I got into a conversation about earth’s aphelion and perihelion and we were wondering if it’s just by chance that perihelion happens near the beginning of winter. The answer is yes, because [take-away above].

p.p.p.p.s. How cool is the name “invariable plane”? And how amazing that the period of the orbiting plane of the earth and the period of the axial tilt are different? There’s really nothing that we can rely on, is there?

Categories: education, musing

Tomtown Ramblers killing it

Last night my bluegrass band, the Tomtown Ramblers, was killing it at band practice. Here’s a picture of us learning a song:

When we sing in 3 part harmony we get all squeezed together.

When we sing in 3 part harmony we get all squeezed together.

As for what song it was, probably this one:

What we lacked in talent we made up for in numbers.

If you’re a musician and want to jam with us, come to Clearwater at the end of June, we’ll (mostly all) be there!

Categories: musing

Illegitimate international debt

How do you declare international debt illegitimate?

When is debt so odious that the taxpayers of a government have no obligation to pay it back?

This is a huge, important question. It’s a question currently plaguing Argentina and Greece, for example. Individuals in both countries have explained to me that the debt was taken on by previous regimes that stuffed their own pockets, and then amplified by terrible deals with predatory investment banks. The average individual citizen feels very little personal responsibility to pay that debt back, consisting as it does of interest payments to the banking system.

The movie we showed at Alt Banking last week, Who’s Saving Whom, also made the case that Spain could declare its taxpayer debt illegitimate, considering that the banking system got bailed out on the taxpayer dime.

Well, now the Center for Global Development has come up with an idea in this direction, called Preemptive Contract Sanctions (hat tip Philip Sterne). They’re aiming it at Syrian debt for Russian arms, and claiming that this debt is odious and illegitimate from the outset. The idea is, if the international community can get together and agree that such debt is odious, and that they will not lift a finger in the future to help the borrower get their money back, then it would be harder to borrow the money, and maybe even impossible, and it wouldn’t saddle future citizens of Syria with that burden.

It’s an interesting idea – see the video here:

It wouldn’t necessarily help solve the current debt crises of Argentina and Greece, which built up over many years, but I like the idea of all debt living on a spectrum of morality. Too often when contracts enter the financial system, they are utterly sanitized and legitimized in the eyes of the international community.

Categories: economics

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Readers! Lots of love to spread today, and I’ve got a love shovel. So be prepared to get covered from head to toe in love.

And no, it’s nothing like snow, so don’t worry about wearing boots or anything. In fact it’s best experienced naked, as most good things are. Think of it as powerful self-love which has been donated to you by a good friend, along with a strong cup of tea and a delicious piece of chocolate babka from Breads Bakery. Holy fuck that’s good stuff.

If you don’t know what I mean by self-love then go ahead and read this piece (hat tip Becky Jaffe).

Also, and relatedly, if you find self-love interesting, you might also find Bitch Planet interesting. I haven’t read it yet but I read this review, and I found it fascinating, especially this line:

Penny not only feels more herself at her size … she also doesn’t care if she offends your eye; in fact, she prefers it.

Fascinating food for thought.

Hey, now, don’t let me get distracted. It’s time for some advice! It’s that time again when I take your perfectly reasonable questions and utterly fuck them up with terrible suggestions. Are you ready? Let’s do this!!

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.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a math student in my last year (yay!) who has found an incredible study/friend group to work/socialize with since starting college and, overall, I would say life is pretty awesome (infinity yay!). Recently one of these friends (let’s call him X) has come out and, being a gay guy myself, I feel super proud of him and I want him to feel supported by everyone and to help make this transition as smooth as possible (I remember only too well how unpleasant it was for myself).

There is, however, one quirk of his that I don’t approve of and try to discourage: continually hitting on/sexually objectifying a straight male friend of ours (let’s call him Y). Y has confided in me that he is extremely uncomfortable with him doing this. I’ve seen it in action before and really any person (gay or straight) would share the same visceral reaction of extreme discomfort seeing X behave as he does around Y. I’ve tried a few times to take X aside and explain that I, too, have had feelings for straight male friends and wanted to act out the way he does, but it’s actually very rude and inconsiderate to do those things; in fact it’s no different from a straight male making unwanted sexual advances on a female colleague. But it doesn’t seem to stick. I thought it would get better once he started seeing guys, since he would have an outlet for his sexual energy, but it’s only gotten worse.

More recently, his unwanted sexual hovering has spread to basically any straight male he finds attractive. Obviously, I’m concerned for X’s sake that if he continues acting this way, he’ll end up alienating himself both professionally and socially from a lot of people (man and woman, gay and straight). My opinion (barring exceptional cases) is that people who come out before the age of 25 should get a 6-month pass to clean up whatever shit they brought with them from their straight days. But it’s been almost 4 months and it’s not getting any better.

What can I say (if anything at all) to my sexually-objectifying gay male nerd friend X? Am I doomed to watch this turn into a train wreck or should I just accept that I can’t fix this problem for him and move on? I still care a lot about his well-being and obviously want the best for him. HELP US, PLEASE?

Got A Lotta (\bar{Q}uirky/Questions)

Dear GAL(\bar{Q}/Q),

If I saw such behavior I’d just speak up, for X’s sake, Y’s sake, and a whole bunch of other (Y’)’s sakes. And I think you should too.

In fact, you’ve got a wonderful set of points to make to him, along these lines:

  1. I’m really glad you came out, good for you.
  2. In general I think people get a 6-month pass on weird stuff after they come out.
  3. For you it’s been 4 already, and I’m getting worried.
  4. Because I see some of your behavior as offensive, even if you don’t, and I’m worried about you.
  5. Namely, you focus too much sexual energy on straight guys who are not inviting it.
  6. I’ll talk about this more if you want, but I want you to know I’m here for you.

Obviously, when you make such a speech to a friend, they are likely to feel ashamed and angry. So expect that, and give it time. You will be doing the right thing, and I expect your friendship will survive. And if it doesn’t, you might not want to hang out with him after all.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Auntie P,

I am new to the site and I’ve already read all of your articles for this year. Every time I revisit your website, I have to scroll down for a while until I can find the next article I haven’t read. I appreciate the ‘Categories’ button but I’ve still encountered the same issue here.

I was wondering if you could organize the site better to make it easier to navigate around. Here are a few sorting suggestions:
1. Sort for most popular to least popular.
2. Sort based on blog entry year.
3. Sort based on oldest to newest.


Seeking Order Restore Trust

Dear SORT,

Nice sign off.

OK so let me get this straight, you want the greatest Aunt Pythia hits, and my current system of search by category is getting you down. I appreciate the love and want to help, obv.

The thing is, I’m not sure how to correct this. only gives me so many tools to work with. Moreover, they’ve lately been arbitrarily presenting me with a “new” and an “old” system for blogging, and in the old system I had categories laid out for me, hard to ignore or forget, and I’d pretty consistently categorize my posts with “Aunt Pythia” when applicable, but in the new system the categories are impossible to find, so some recent Aunt Pythia columns don’t even get categorized in the Aunt Pythia category!

In other words, major sorting calamity.

I’d love to do better. If anyone knows more than I do about how to work with an archive of wordpress posts, please pipe up, thanks.

Love always,

Auntie P


Hey Aunt Pythia!

Thanks for your column. I want to get your thoughts on a situation been going around and around in my head for ages (help!). I know there won’t be just one answer to this – but I wanna get yours!

You write about being someone who falls in love all the time, but you also write about being in a relationship. How can other couples get past the hurt/betrayal that so often seems to accompany extra-relationship flirting / crushes / affairs?

I’m in a long-term relationship I value and I see it continuing indefinitely – unless I get caught flirting and cheating again. My partner feels betrayed by this behavior, but I’m not sure I can (or want to) resist the thrill I get from it. We both want to make our relationship work but aren’t sure how.

Flirt Alert

Dear Flirt Alert,

Lots of different approaches to this, naturally.

Important question: you say your partner feels betrayed by this behavior, but you don’t say what you’ve said to your partner when you’ve been previously caught cheating. Did you promise never to do it again? Or did you explain that you still love your partner and still want to stay with them?

I know to many that may sound like splitting hairs to some, but I think it’s key.

For the cheaters I know, at least the successful ones, they don’t lie to their partners and pretend they’ll never again stray. They acknowledge the feeling of betrayal, they try to prevent pain in their loved ones, but they don’t promise they’ll change, because they know they won’t.

Here’s my advice. In a moment when there’s no temptation in sight, when you are not crushed out on anyone and so there’s no imminent threat, talk to your partner about your love for them, about your desire to stay with them, and about the irresistible thrill you get out of flirting and – yes – sometimes more. Explain that you don’t think this is something that will go away, and that if you “promise” it will never again happen, you’re afraid that will be an empty promise. See what happens.

For fuck’s sake, don’t wait until you are dying to fuck some cutie at work to bring up this topic, because that will come out and then jealousy will ensue. Talk about it abstractly to see if an arrangement can be made.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. Some readers might wonder what I mean by “successful cheaters.” I’m gonna leave it there for now but feel free to ask.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Perhaps you would please give me some study advice. In disregard, but no doubt substantiating, Hardy’s admonition: do not attempt over sixty (as in the essay you mention on the blog), I am a 70 year-old self studier having started three years ago.

Needless to say I am nowhere near as proficient as I would like to be, but so what. I really dig it.

I have picked a lot of the low hanging fruit in a standard undergrad curriculum. As an alternative to academic texts (I have been quite picky in choosing them), I would really like focus and cultivate a bit of expertise in some niche area.

I would appreciate any study recommendations: I would be most interested in a cool topic, especially if it has a masterpiece text or set of notes. I am deliberately avoiding expressing any preferences for particular areas as I am more interested in the process.

Thanks for giving this your consideration.

Best regards,



Are you kidding me? I learned everything I know from wikipedia and other people. I basically never read technical books.

But good luck!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. Have you seen this?


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

Patent trolls

This morning I’m preparing for my weekly Slate Money podcast by trying to learn all about patents and patent trolls. To tell you the truth, so far I don’t know why patent trolls are all that bad, besides the fact that they obviously have a terrible sounding name. It seems like the patent system works in many ways for good, at least when there’s no weird extensions of the time limitations and the original patent was valid. Feel free to disagree, though, and tell me why.

Also on the slate (harhar): Amanda Palmer, Wu-Tang Clan, and Lumber Liquidators. Another typical week in the world of podcasting, in other words.

My number of the week is going to be 2063, by the way, but I’m not saying why.

Categories: Uncategorized

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