Guest Post: A Discussion Of PARCC Testing

This is a guest post by Eugene Stern, who writes a blog at Sense Made Here, and Kristin Wald, who writes a blog at This Unique* Weblog. Crossposted on their blogs as well.

Today’s post is a discussion of education reform, standardized testing, and PARCC with my friend Kristin Wald, who has been extremely kind to this blog. Kristin taught high school English in the NYC public schools for many years. Today her kids and mine go to school together in Montclair. She has her own blog that gets orders of magnitude more readers than I do.

ES: PARCC testing is beginning in New Jersey this month. There’s been lots of anxiety and confusion in Montclair and elsewhere as parents debate whether to have their kids take the test or opt out. How do you think about it, both as a teacher and as a parent?

KW: My simple answer is that my kids will sit for PARCC. However, and this is where is gets grainy, that doesn’t mean I consider myself a cheerleader for the exam or for the Common Core curriculum in general.

In fact, my initial reaction, a few years ago, was to distance my children from both the Common Core and PARCC. So much so that I wrote to my child’s principal and teacher requesting that no practice tests be administered to him. At that point I had only peripherally heard about the issues and was extending my distaste for No Child Left Behind and, later, Race to the Top. However, despite reading about and discussing the myriad issues, I still believe in change from within and trying the system out to see kinks and wrinkles up-close rather than condemning it full force.


ES: Why did you dislike NCLB and Race to the Top? What was your experience with them as a teacher?

KW: Back when I taught in NYC, there was wiggle room if students and schools didn’t meet standards. Part of my survival as a teacher was to shut my door and do what I wanted. By the time I left the classroom in 2007 we were being asked to post the standards codes for the New York State Regents Exams around our rooms, similar to posting Common Core standards all around. That made no sense to me. Who was this supposed to be for? Not the students – if they’re gazing around the room they’re not looking at CC RL.9-10 next to an essay hanging on a bulletin board. I also found NCLB naïve in its “every child can learn it all” attitude. I mean, yes, sure, any child can learn. But kids aren’t starting out at the same place or with the same support. And anyone who has experience with children who have not had the proper support up through 11th grade knows they’re not going to do well, or even half-way to well, just because they have a kickass teacher that year.

Regarding my initial aversion to Common Core, especially as a high school English Language Arts teacher, the minimal appearance of fiction and poetry was disheartening. We’d already seen the slant in the NYS Regents Exam since the late 90’s.

However, a couple of years ago, a friend asked me to explain the reason The Bluest Eye, with its abuse and rape scenes, was included in Common Core selections, so I took a closer look. Basically, a right-wing blogger had excerpted lines and scenes from the novel to paint it as “smut” and child pornography, thus condemning the entire Common Core curriculum. My response to my friend ended up as “In Defense of The Bluest Eye.”

That’s when I started looking more closely at the Common Core curriculum. Learning about some of the challenges facing public schools around the country, I had to admit that having a required curriculum didn’t seem like a terrible idea. In fact, in a few cases, the Common Core felt less confining than what they’d had before. And you know, even in NYC, there were English departments that rarely taught women or minority writers. Without a strong leader in a department, there’s such a thing as too much autonomy. Just like a unit in a class, a school and a department should have a focus, a balance.

But your expertise is Mathematics, Eugene. What are your thoughts on the Common Core from that perspective?

ES: They’re a mix. There are aspects of the reforms that I agree with, aspects that I strongly disagree with, and then a bunch of stuff in between.

The main thing I agree with is that learning math should be centered on learning concepts rather than procedures. You should still learn procedures, but with a conceptual underpinning, so you understand what you’re doing. That’s not a new idea: it’s been in the air, and frustrating some parents, for 50 years or more. In the 1960’s, they called it New Math.

Back then, the reforms didn’t go so well because the concepts they were trying to teach were too abstract – too much set theory, in a nutshell, at least in the younger grades. So then there was a retrenchment, back to learning procedures. But these things seem to go in cycles, and now we’re trying to teach concepts better again. This time more flexibly, less abstractly, with more examples. At least that’s the hope, and I share that hope.

I also agree with your point about needing some common standards defining what gets taught at each grade level. You don’t want to be super-prescriptive, but you need to ensure some kind of consistency between schools. Otherwise, what happens when a kid switches schools? Math, especially, is such a cumulative subject that you really need to have some big picture consistency in how you teach it.


ES: What I disagree with is the increased emphasis on standardized testing, especially the raised stakes of those tests. I want to see better, more consistent standards and curriculum, but I think that can and should happen without putting this very heavy and punitive assessment mechanism on top of it.

KW: Yes, claiming to want to assess ability (which is a good thing), but then connecting the results to a teacher’s effectiveness in that moment is insincere evaluation. And using a standardized test not created by the teacher with material not covered in class as a hard percentage of a teacher’s evaluation makes little sense. I understand that much of the exam is testing critical thinking, ability to reason and use logic, and so on. It’s not about specific content, and that’s fine. (I really do think that’s fine!) Linking teacher evaluations to it is not.

Students cannot be taught to think critically in six months. As you mentioned about the spiraling back to concepts, those skills need to be revisited again and again in different contexts. And I agree, tests needn’t be the main driver for raising standards and developing curriculum. But they can give a good read on overall strengths and weaknesses. And if PARCC is supposed to be about assessing student strengths and weaknesses, it should be informing adjustments in curriculum.

On a smaller scale, strong teachers and staffs are supposed to work as a team to influence the entire school and district with adjusted curriculum as well. With a wide reach like the Common Core, a worrying issue is that different parts of the USA will have varying needs to meet. Making adjustments for all based on such a wide collection of assessments is counterintuitive. Local districts (and the principals and teachers in them) need to have leeway with applying them to best suit their own students.

Even so, I do like some things about data driven curricula. Teachers and school administrators are some of the most empathetic and caring people there are, but they are still human, and biases exist. Teachers, guidance counselors, administrators can’t help but be affected by personal sympathies and peeves. Having a consistent assessment of skills can be very helpful for those students who sometimes fall through the cracks. Basically, standards: yes. Linking scores to teacher evaluation: no.

ES: Yes, I just don’t get the conventional wisdom that we can only tell that the reforms are working, at both the individual and group level, through standardized test results. It gives us some information, but it’s still just a proxy. A highly imperfect proxy at that, and we need to have lots of others.

I also really like your point that, as you’re rolling out national standards, you need some local assessment to help you see how those national standards are meeting local needs. It’s a safeguard against getting too cookie-cutter.

I think it’s incredibly important that, as you and I talk, we can separate changes we like from changes we don’t. One reason there’s so much noise and confusion now is that everything – standards, curriculum, testing – gets lumped together under “Common Core.” It becomes this giant kitchen sink that’s very hard to talk about in a rational way. Testing especially should be separated out because it’s fundamentally an issue of process, whereas standards and curriculum are really about content.

You take a guy like Cuomo in New York. He’s trying to increase the reliance on standardized tests in teacher evaluations, so that value added models based on test scores count for half of a teacher’s total evaluation. And he says stuff like this: “Everyone will tell you, nationwide, the key to education reform is a teacher evaluation system.” That’s from his State of the State address in January. He doesn’t care about making the content better at all. “Everyone” will tell you! I know for a fact that the people spending all their time figuring out at what grade level kids should start to learn about fractions aren’t going tell you that!

I couldn’t disagree with that guy more, but I’m not going to argue with him based on whether or not I like the problems my kids are getting in math class. I’m going to point out examples, which he should be well aware of by now, of how badly the models work. That’s a totally different discussion, about what we can model accurately and fairly and what we can’t.

So let’s have that discussion. Starting point: if you want to use test scores to evaluate teachers, you need a model because – I think everyone agrees on this – how kids do on a test depends on much more than how good their teacher was. There’s the talent of the kid, what preparation they got outside their teacher’s classroom, whether they got a good night’s sleep the night before, and a good breakfast, and lots of other things. As well as natural randomness: maybe the reading comprehension section was about DNA, and the kid just read a book about DNA last month. So you need a model to break out the impact of the teacher. And the models we have today, even the most state-of-the-art ones, can give you useful aggregate information, but they just don’t work at that level of detail. I’m saying this as a math person, and the American Statistical Association agrees. I’ve written about this here and here and here and here.

Having student test results impact teacher evaluations is my biggest objection to PARCC, by far.

KW: Yep. Can I just cut and paste what you’ve said? However, for me, another distasteful aspect is how technology is tangled up in the PARCC exam.


ES: Let me tell you the saddest thing I’ve heard all week. There’s a guy named Dan Meyer, who writes very interesting things about math education, both in his blog and on Twitter. He put out a tweet about a bunch of kids coming into a classroom and collectively groaning when they saw laptops on every desk. And the reason was that they just instinctively assumed they were either about to take a test or do test prep.

That feels like such a collective failure to me. Look, I work in technology, and I’m still optimistic that it’s going to have a positive impact on math education. You can use computers to do experiments, visualize relationships, reinforce concepts by having kids code them up, you name it. The new standards emphasize data analysis and statistics much more than any earlier standards did, and I think that’s a great thing. But using computers primarily as a testing tool is an enormous missed opportunity. It’s like, here’s the most amazing tool human beings have ever invented, and we’re going to use it primarily as a paperweight. And we’re going to waste class time teaching kids exactly how to use it as a paperweight. That’s just so dispiriting.

KW: That’s something that hardly occurred to me. My main objection to hosting the PARCC exam on computers – and giving preparation homework and assignments that MUST be done on a computer – is the unfairness inherent in accessibility. It’s one more way to widen the achievement gap that we are supposed to be minimizing. I wrote about it from one perspective here.

I’m sure there are some students who test better on a computer, but the playing field has to be evenly designed and aggressively offered. Otherwise, a major part of what the PARCC is testing is how accurately and quickly children use a keyboard. And in the aggregate, the group that will have scores negatively impacted will be children with less access to the technology used on the PARCC. That’s not an assessment we need to test to know. When I took the practice tests, I found some questions quite clear, but others were difficult not for content but in maneuvering to create a fraction or other concept. Part of that can be solved through practice and comfort with the technology, but then we return to what we’re actually testing.

ES: Those are both great points. The last thing you want to do is force kids to write math on a computer, because it’s really hard! Math has lots of specialized notation that’s much easier to write with pencil and paper, and learning how to write math and use that notation is a big part of learning the subject. It’s not easy, and you don’t want to put artificial obstacles in kids’ way. I want kids thinking about fractions and exponents and what they mean, and how to write them in a mathematical expression, but not worrying about how to put a numerator above a denominator or do a superscript or make a font smaller on a computer. Plus, why in the world would you limit what kids can express on a test to what they can input on a keyboard? A test is a proxy already, and this limits what it can capture even more.

I believe in using technology in education, but we’ve got the order totally backwards. Don’t introduce the computer as a device to administer tests, introduce it as a tool to help in the classroom. Use it for demos and experiments and illustrating concepts.

As far as access and fairness go, I think that’s another argument for using the computer as a teaching tool rather than a testing tool. If a school is using computers in class, then at least everyone has access in the classroom setting, which is a start. Now you might branch out from there to assignments that require a computer. But if that’s done right, and those assignments grow in an organic way out of what’s happening in the classroom, and they have clear learning value, then the school and the community are also morally obligated to make sure that everyone has access. If you don’t have a computer at home, and you need to do computer-based homework, then we have to get you computer access, after school hours, or at the library, or what have you. And that might actually level the playing field a bit. Whereas now, many computer exercises feel like they’re primarily there to get kids used to the testing medium. There isn’t the same moral imperative to give everybody access to that.

I really want to hear more about your experience with the PARCC practice tests, though. I’ve seen many social media threads about unclear questions, both in a testing context and more generally with the Common Core. It sounds like you didn’t think it was so bad?

KW: Well, “not so bad” in that I am a 45 year old who was really trying to take the practice exam honestly, but didn’t feel stressed about the results. However, I found the questions with fractions confusing in execution on the computer (I almost gave up), and some of the questions really had to be read more than once. Now, granted, I haven’t been exposed to the language and technique of the exam. That matters a lot. In the SAT, for example, if you don’t know the testing language and format it will adversely affect your performance. This is similar to any format of an exam or task, even putting together an IKEA nightstand.

There are mainly two approaches to preparation, and out of fear of failing, some school districts are doing hardcore test preparation – much like SAT preparation classes – to the detriment of content and skill-based learning. Others are not altering their classroom approaches radically; in fact, some teachers and parents have told me they hardly notice a difference. My unscientific observations point to a separation between the two that is lined in Socio-Economic Status. If districts feel like they are on the edge or have a lot to lose (autonomy, funding, jobs), if makes sense that they would be reactionary in dealing with the PARCC exam. Ironically, schools that treat the PARCC like a high-stakes test are the ones losing the most.

Opting Out

KW: Despite my misgivings, I’m not in favor of “opting out” of the test. I understand the frustration that has prompted the push some districts are experiencing, but there have been some compromises in New Jersey. I was glad to see that the NJ Assembly voted to put off using the PARCC results for student placement and teacher evaluations for three years. And I was relieved, though not thrilled, that the percentage of PARCC results to be used in teacher evaluations was lowered to 10% (and now put off). I still think it should not be a part of teacher evaluations, but 10% is an improvement.

Rather than refusing the exam, I’d prefer to see the PARCC in action and compare honest data to school and teacher-generated assessments in order to improve the assessment overall. I believe an objective state or national model is worth having; relying only on teacher-based assessment has consistency and subjective problems in many areas. And that goes double for areas with deeply disadvantaged students.

ES: Yes, NJ seems to be stepping back from the brink as far as model-driven teacher evaluation goes. I think I feel the same way you do, but if I lived in NY, where Cuomo is trying to bump up the weight of value added models in evaluations to 50%, I might very well be opting out.

Let me illustrate the contrast – NY vs. NJ, more test prep vs. less — with an example. My family is good friends with a family that lived in NYC for many years, and just moved to Montclair a couple months ago. Their older kid is in third grade, which is the grade level where all this testing starts. In their NYC gifted and talented public school, the test was this big, stressful thing, and it was giving the kid all kinds of test anxiety. So the mom was planning to opt out. But when they got to Montclair, the kid’s teacher was much more low key, and telling the kids not to worry. And once it became lower stakes, the kid wanted to take the test! The mom was still ambivalent, but she decided that here was an opportunity for her kid to get used to tests without anxiety, and that was the most important factor for her.

I’m trying to make two points here. One: whether or not you opt out depends on lots of factors, and people’s situations and priorities can be very different. We need to respect that, regardless of which way people end up going. Two: shame on us, as grown ups, for polluting our kids’ education with our anxieties! We need to stop that, and that extends both to the education policies we put in place and how we collectively debate those policies. I guess what I’m saying is: less noise, folks, please.

KW: Does this very long blog post count as noise, Eugene? I wonder how this will be assessed? There are so many other issues – private profits from public education, teacher autonomy in high performing schools, a lack of educational supplies and family support, and so on. But we have to start somewhere with civil and productive discourse, right? So, thank you for having the conversation.

ES: Kristin, I won’t try to predict anyone else’s assessment, but I will keep mine low stakes and say this has been a pleasure!

A critique of a review of a book by Bruce Schneier

I haven’t yet read Bruce Schneier’s new book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles To Collect Your Data and Control Your World. I plan to in the coming days, while I’m traveling with my kids for spring break.

Even so, I already feel capable of critiquing this review of his book (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg), written by Columbia Business School Professor and Investment Banker Jonathan Knee. You see, I’m writing a book myself on big data, so I feel like I understand many of the issues intimately.

The review starts out flattering, but then it hits this turn:

When it comes to his specific policy recommendations, however, Mr. Schneier becomes significantly less compelling. And the underlying philosophy that emerges — once he has dispensed with all pretense of an evenhanded presentation of the issues — seems actually subversive of the very democratic principles that he claims animates his mission.

That’s a pretty hefty charge. Let’s take a look into Knee’s evidence that Schneier wants to subvert democratic principles.


First, he complains that Schneier wants the government to stop collecting and mining massive amounts of data in its search for terrorists. Knee thinks this is dumb because it would be great to have lots of data on the “bad guys” once we catch them.

Any time someone uses the phrase “bad guys,” it makes me wince.

But putting that aside, Knee is either ignorant of or is completely ignoring what mass surveillance and data dredging actually creates: the false positives, the time and money and attention, not to mention the potential for misuse and hacking. Knee’s opinion on that is simply that we normal citizens just don’t know enough to have an opinion on whether it works, including Schneier, and in spite of Schneier knowing Snowden pretty well.

It’s just like waterboarding – Knee says – we can’t be sure it isn’t a great fucking idea.

Wait, before we move on, who is more pro-democracy, the guy who wants to stop totalitarian social control methods, or the guy who wants to leave it to the opaque authorities?

Corporate Data Collection

Here’s where Knee really gets lost in Schneier’s logic, because – get this – Schneier wants corporate collection and sale of consumer data to stop. The nerve. As Knee says:

Mr. Schneier promotes no less than a fundamental reshaping of the media and technology landscape. Companies with access to large amounts of personal data would be “automatically classified as fiduciaries” and subject to “special legal restrictions and protections.”

That these limits would render illegal most current business models — under which consumers exchange enhanced access by advertisers for free services – does not seem to bother Mr. Schneier”

I can’t help but think that Knee cannot understand any argument that would threaten the business world as he knows it. After all, he is a business professor and an investment banker. Things seem pretty well worked out when you live in such an environment.

By Knee’s logic, even if the current business model is subverting democracy – which I also argue in my book – we shouldn’t tamper with it because it’s a business model.

The way Knee paints Schneier as anti-democratic is by using the classic fallacy in big data which I wrote about here:

Although professing to be primarily preoccupied with respect of individual autonomy, the fact that Americans as a group apparently don’t feel the same way as he does about privacy appears to have little impact on the author’s radical regulatory agenda. He actually blames “the media” for the failure of his positions to attract more popular support.

Quick summary: Americans as a group do not feel this way because they do not understand what they are trading when they trade their privacy. Commercial and governmental interests, meanwhile, are all united in convincing Americans not to think too hard about it. There are very few people devoting themselves to alerting people to the dark side of big data, and Schneier is one of them. It is a patriotic act.

Also, yes Professor Knee, “the media” generally speaking writes down whatever a marketer in the big data world says is true. There are wonderful exceptions, of course.

So, here’s a question for Knee. What if you found out about a threat on the citizenry, and wanted to put a stop to it? You might write a book and explain the threat; the fact that not everyone already agrees with you wouldn’t make your book anti-democratic, would it?


The rest of the review basically boils down to, “you don’t understand the teachings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior like I do.”

Do you know about Godwin’s law, which says that as soon as someone invokes the Nazis in an argument about anything, they’ve lost the argument?

I feel like we need another, similar rule, which says, if you’re invoking MLK and claiming the other person is misinterpreting him while you have him nailed, then you’ve lost the argument.

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.

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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

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