Author Archive

In defense of dowdy

I’ve been thinking recently about the definition of “civilization.” What makes a society civilized? I have some guesses, here are a few guesses, kind of in order of obviousness:

  • A place where grown men don’t get harassed when they walk around minding their own business. I’m looking at you, broken windows policies.
  • A place where young girls don’t get sexually harassed when they walk around minding their own business. I’m looking at you, India rape culture.
  • A place where young girls and grown women aren’t constantly bombarded by messages that they are expected to conform to a male fantasy definition of beauty. I’m looking at you, almost everywhere. But specifically Brazil.

Here’s what I’d like to see: a series of articles in places like NY Magazine, that directly contrast to articles about how French women use makeup – but spend only 15 minutes on it per day – and still look amazingly sexy, or don’t diet and still look amazingly sexy, and so on.

I’d like instead an article specifically written for the woman who wants to know where they can walk around minding their own business and being utterly indifferent to their appearance, and they won’t be bothered. Let’s defend our right to be dowdy as shit.

Special kudos to places where young women can walk around dressed in anything they want and still be left alone.

So tell me, do you know of any places like that?

Categories: Uncategorized

Looking for big data reading suggestions

I have been told by my editor to take a look at the books already out there on big data to make sure my book hasn’t already been written. For example, today I’m set to read Robert Scheer’s They Know Everything About You: how data-collecting corporations and snooping government agencies are destroying democracy.

This book, like others I’ve already read and written about (Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath, Frank Pasquale’s Black Box Society, and Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation) are all primarily concerned with individual freedom and privacy, whereas my book is primarily concerned with social justice issues, and each chapter gives an example of how big data is being used a tool against the poor, against minorities, against the mentally ill, or against public school teachers.

Not that my book is entirely different from the above books, but the relationship is something like what I spelled out last week when I discussed the four political camps in the big data world. So far the books I’ve found are focused on the corporate angle or the privacy angle. There may also be books focused on the open data angle, but I’m guessing they have even less in common with my book, which focuses on the ways big data increase inequality and further alienate already alienated populations.

If any of you know of a book I should be looking at, please tell me!

Sharing with whom?

I’ve been skeptical of Uber and other so-called “sharing economy” companies for a while. It seems like they are making money by skirting regulation and pretending not to have employees; they are a “platform” for matching people who want services with people willing to provide them, and as such they don’t have the legal responsibility of a traditional company. Or at least that’s the idea. Plus it is offensive to think of the word “share” in this context.

But my complaints have remained relatively vague, until this morning, when I read two articles about the issue.

First, Sharing and Caring by Tom Slee, published by Jacobin. He nailed it:

Meanwhile delivery giant DHL has launched its MyWays delivery service, powered by “people who want to deliver parcels and earn some extra money.” TaskRabbit and others call their workers “micro-entrepreneurs,” but that is a poor description of precarious piecework. The preferred phrasing of “extra money” harks back to women’s jobs of forty years ago. And like those jobs, they don’t come with things like insurance protection, job security, benefits — none of that old economy stuff.

Next, The Class-Action Lawyer Shaking Up the Share Economypublished in The Recorder (hat tip Nathalie Molina). It profiles a lawyer named Shannon Liss-Riordan who is going after the sharing economy companies to first acknowledge, then pay their employees better wages and benefits. From the article:

“Uber is what, the most highly valued startup in the world right now?” she asked. “Valued at over $40 billion? I think they can afford to pay for workers’ comp and unemployment.”

Categories: Uncategorized

The Police State is already here.

The thing that people like Snowden are worried about with respect to mass surveillance has already happened. It’s being carried out by police departments, though, not the NSA, and its targets are black men, not the general population.

Take a look at this incredible Guardian article written by Rose Hackman. Her title is, Is the online surveillance of black teenagers the new stop-and-frisk? but honestly that’s a pretty tame comparison if you think about the kinds of permanent electronic information that the police are collecting about black boys in Harlem as young as 10 years old.

Some facts about the program:

  • 28,000 residents are being surveilled
  • 300 “crews,” a designation that rises to “gangs” when there are arrests,
  • Officers trawl Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media for incriminating posts
  • They pose as young women to gain access to “private” accounts
  • Parents are not notified
  • People never get off these surveillance lists
  • In practice, half of court cases actually use social media data to put people away
  • NYPD cameras are located all over Harlem as well

We need to limit the kind of information police can collect, and put limits on how discriminatory their collection practices are. As the article points out, white fraternity brothers two blocks away at Columbia University are not on the lists, even though there was a big drug bust in 2010.

For anyone who wonders what a truly scary police surveillance state looks like, they need look no further than what’s already happening for certain Harlem residents.

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:

Categories: Aunt Pythia Tags:

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

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