Aunt Pythia’s advice


Do you really hate my advice? Do you disagree with everything I ever say, and wish you had an outlet for your frustration?

If so, good news for you today. I have officially found the place in the world where you can get advice which is the exact opposite of mine, namely by watching the new TV show Sex Box and then listening to the awful and rigid suggestions from the three judges. From the entertaining review of Sex Box:

Married couples briefly describe their unfulfilling sex lives, then are sent to the box, on the theory that the release of endorphins following sex will put them in the mood for a frank postcoital discussion of their problems. In the premiere, none of the men fall asleep after leaving the box, though this is a distinct possibility for viewers of any gender.

Worst part: the sex box is actually not made from clear material. We just have to take it on faith that sex is going on in there. But if that’s already enough for you guys, then be gone! Go ahead, leave!!

For those of you who are still here, I’ma let you into my sex-related reading list as a reward of loyalty. This very week I purchased two books which I think will be excellent reads, and might be titillating as well. Namely, Sex at Dawn and Sperm Wars.

I haven't read this yet but the TED talk was pretty good.

I haven’t read this yet but the TED talk was pretty good.

Some of this stuff might be pseudo-science, but I don't care, because it's about sex.

Some of this stuff might be pseudo-science, but I don’t care, because it’s about sex.

I’m hoping to read these both over the next few days and weeks (after I finish the first three amazing Elena Ferrante Neopolitan Novels) and then write up a comparative review. I’d love to hear from you guys if you have more book recommendations in this genre. In the meantime,

        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,

Zac Weiner claims marriage is a lot like the Dollar Auction in game theory. I get the sinking feeling that his comic is an accurate portrayal of my life.

Do you agree with him? And if so, what is the best strategy to get out of a bad marriage?

“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”


Dear Joshua,

Here’s the comic for anyone who doesn’t know what we’re talking about:


Here’s the thing. I think that people who wait for their spouse to end a marriage are cowardly. Let’s focus on that last frame, where the couple are both thinking that if the other one leaves them, it will be “easier.” Kind of the definition of cowardly to do something because it’s easier.

Also, easier in what sense? What are you trying avoid, guilt or unhappiness? I can only imagine that someone in that mindset has already accepted permanent unhappiness, barring some kind of miracle, and is focused on the last remaining issue, that of guilt.

Fuck that. Get more selfish (if you call it that) and focus on your own unhappiness, and screw the guilt. Tell your spouse you’re unhappy, because it’s more courageous, because it might be fixable, and because it will be much more likely to get fixed if you talk about it.

This is not a game, it’s your life.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I was on vacation in Utrecht the other day, and was very surprised to find a vagina, apparently abandoned. Can I keep it, or should I hand it in to the police?

Someone Not Accustomed To Commenting Here


Keep it, take good care of it, and I mean really good care of it, and then please return it to its rightful owner, who will be ever ever so grateful, I’m absolutely sure of it.

Aunt Pythia

p.s. I love your sign-off. And everything else about you.


Hello Miss Pythia,

You are quoted here about your reflections on open algorithms.

Is it possible for a firm like Google to model billions of human brains when they collectively interact with computers? And if yes, why only do marketing when you can manipulate brains?

Michaël (Toulouse)

Dear Michael,

Marketing is manipulating brains. That’s exactly what marketing is, turning brains into things that pay you for stuff.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My sister and her girlfriend came to stay with me and my family (husband, kids) at Christmas. The girlfriend was lovely and a good time was had by all.

The girlfriend has started emailing me, not including my sister on the emails, saying what a great time she had, how much she liked me, how she couldn’t wait to come back and visit again, asking me (only — no family) to come out and visit her, trying to make some inside jokes about my family, etc. Each time I wrote back, looping in my sister, and was nice but distant. The first email or two were fine but I feel like she is either seriously boundary-challenged or is hitting on me.

Should I keep responding to her emails? Say something to her? Say something to my sister?

Don’t Play On Your Team, Wouldn’t Sleep With You If I Did


This one is easy. Yes, she’s hitting on you. That’s fine because you’re super gorgeous and attractive and who wouldn’t want a piece of that? Everyone should be allowed to fall in love. I’d leave it at that, and strain to feel empathy for her situation rather than judgement.

As for what you should do: don’t write back, or wait like 6 weeks and then apologize for being super busy, and even then talk about incredibly boring things like getting your washing machine fixed and buying clothes for your ever-growing kids. Oh, and of course don’t tell your sister, nothing really happened.

Auntie P.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I had a book published recently (December 8). My publisher’s schedule needs caused me to have to abruptly stop working on the book and hand it over. It is a reference book with a lot of data, so that meant that there is some missing data. I had an opportunity to add some more content late in the game. That caused the publication date to slip from October 15 to December 8. The editor and publisher decided that it was more important to get the additional content than to make the original date, which was a good thing. The bad thing is that there is still missing content. I was told that I might have an opportunity, if there are additional printings, to add content and fix errors. I am back to working a 40 hour-a-week job, so that reduces the time that I have to do anything. That was the factor which slowed down the research and writing process originally. I was laid off in May, so I had time to build the index and add content. I also corrected some errors. Should I be pushing finding and adding the missing content? I had made a small start, but then the holidays hit and stopped me again.

Lost in Space

Dear Lost In Space,

Given that this is a technical book, it’s more about your integrity and reputation than it is about money. If I were you I would work on it, and I’d also maintain a webpage with the most updated links to data. When and if the time comes, add it to the book. You won’t regret doing that for your readers, and neither will they.

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: Uncategorized

For Profit Colleges Are The Real Villain

Scott Walker has recently made waves in Wisconsin by surreptitiously attempting to change the mission of the University of Wisconsin, and by threatening to remove $300 million of federal aid to the University of Wisconsin, citing the “laziness of professors” as a problem in need of a solution. On the one hand, he’s right to say there’s a crisis in higher education. But on the other hand, he has the wrong villain.

Instead of focusing on state schools like U of W, we should be investigating the toxic for-profit college industry. For-profit colleges have mushroomed in the last decade and tend to represent themselves as a solution to a very real problem; namely, that it’s become increasingly difficult to get a good job out of high school.

People who have been told to get a degree to pull themselves out of poverty are often faced with two options: enrolling at a nearby community college, or at a for-profit. But, partly because public funds are being diverted to for-profits, more affordable community colleges are not able to fill demand, leaving potential students with the more expensive alternative.

The results have proven to be terrible for the students. They leave with devastating debt, low graduation rates, and often no real education, often worse off than when they started.

This hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. The for-profit industry has been getting into repeated messy problems lately for fraudulent practices, including lying about graduation rates and post-graduation jobs. In the past year alone we’ve seen Corinthian, ITT, and get busted for fraudulent marketing practices.

This won’t be a surprise to those who know how these for-profits operate. They represent a revenue-maximizing industry which game the federal student aid programs for the poor and for veterans. 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. We could and should be getting more for our money.

Moreover, the industry specifically targets vulnerable, poor, minority single mothers online with misleading ads promising an easy degree and a new life. Once they have a phone number, they have trained recruiters repeatedly call and “poke the pain” of their targets.

Even when the fraudulent practices are discovered, as is the case with Corinthian, which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has accused of running a “predatory lending scheme,” the students haven’t gotten their money back, and neither have the taxpayers.

Obama has been making noises about a new college ranking system. Instead he should create a flat-out fraud detection system, built explicitly to be harder to game than the current watered-down regulatory framework, and particularly considering these companies are professional gamers.

Even better, the government should cut for-profits off of public assistance, and divert subsidies to struggling community colleges and institutions like the University of Wisconsin, which are better positioned to serve the common good. When education becomes a profit center, things go awry: admissions counselors become salespeople, students become consumers to be wrung for every last dime, and administrators become executives who cash out while students and taxpayers are left with the tab.

Corinthian and the other for-profits are only the worst along the spectrum of bad, and almost no college is immune to these kinds of tricks. We need to do a better job of quality control and educational goals. Beyond real punishment for the worst offenders, and refunding bilked student’s money, we should immediately increase funding for state schools, and try to once again create a country of opportunity.

Categories: Uncategorized

Big Data Is The New Phrenology

Have you ever heard of phrenology? It was, once upon a time, the “science” of measuring someone’s skull to understand their intellectual capabilities.

This sounds totally idiotic but was a huge fucking deal in the mid-1800’s, and really didn’t stop getting some credit until much later. I know that because I happen to own the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was written by the top scholars of the time but is now horribly and fascinatingly outdated.

For example, the entry for “Negro” is famously racist. Wikipedia has an excerpt: “Mentally the negro is inferior to the white… the arrest or even deterioration of mental development [after adolescence] is no doubt very largely due to the fact that after puberty sexual matters take the first place in the negro’s life and thoughts.”

But really that one line doesn’t tell the whole story. Here’s the whole thing, it’s long:

Pages 1 and 2

Pages 1 and 2

Pages 3 and 4

Pages 3 and 4

Pages 5 and 6

Pages 5 and 6

As you can see, they really go into it, with all sorts of data and speculative theories. But near the beginning there’s straight up racist phrenology:

From page 1

From page 1

To be clear: this was produced by a culture that was using pseudo-scientific nonsense to validate an underlying toxic and racist mindset. There was nothing more to it, but because people become awed and confused around scientific facts and figures, it seemed to work as a validating argument in 1911.

Anyhoo, I thought this was an interesting back drop to the NPR story I wanted to share with you (hat tip Yves Smith) entitled Recruiting Better Talent With Brain Games And Big Data. You can read the transcript as well, you don’t have to listen. Basically the idea is you play video games and the machine takes note of how you play and the choices you make and comes back to you with a personality profile. That profile will help you get a job or will exclude you from a job if the company believes in the results. There’s been no scientific tests to see if or how this stuff works, we’re supposed to just believe in it because, you know, data is objective and everything.

Here’s the thing. What we’ve got is a new kind of awful pseudo-science, which replaces measurements of skulls with big data. There’s no reason to think this stuff is any less biased or discriminatory either: given that there’s no actual science behind it, we might simply be replicating a selection method to get people who we like and who remind us of ourselves. To be sure, it might not be as deliberate as what we saw above, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

The NPR reporter who introduced this story did so by saying, “let’s start this hour with a look at an innovation in something that’s gone unchanged, it seems, forever.” That one sentence already gets it wrong, though. This is, unfortunately, not innovative. This is just the big data version of phrenology.

Categories: Uncategorized

Student Debt Strikers Take On Corinthian College

Fifteen students have refused to pay back their student debt to Everest College, owned by the now disgraced for-profit company Corinthian College. They call themselves “the Corinthian 15″.

Good for them. Corinthian College is a predatory and fraudulent company which was in the business of gaming the federal loan system while making false promises to its students. Those students are victims of fraud and should not be the ones paying back the government money for an education they never got. Instead, Corinthian should pay back the money.

There are articles about this in the New Yorker, Newsweek, and the Guardian, and there’s a letter of support signed by Naomi Klein and Barbara Ehrenreich, among others, which contains the following:

By declaring a strike, the Corinthian 15 are taking debt relief for themselves and challenging the Department of Education to look out for students instead of protecting rich and powerful creditors. By declaring a strike, they are taking a stand for all student debtors, by reminding us that for-profits schools are just an extreme version of our increasingly untenable system of debt-financed higher education. By declaring a strike, the Corinthian 15 are asking why the U.S. lags so far behind other industrialized societies in denying its citizenry the right to free college enrollment.


At the same time, there’s a new Rolling Jubilee initiative that just freed $13 million dollars worth of student debt, which was covered by Democracy Now. Right on.

Categories: Uncategorized

How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy

I’m really looking forward to tonight’s panel on mega-foundations and democracy, organized by the Big Apple Coffee Party. I will be the moderator of the event, which takes place at 6:30 tonight at All Soul’s Church at 1157 Lexington Avenue and is open to the public.

In preparation, I’m reading the article that inspired tonight’s discussion, written by one of tonight’s three panelists, Joanne Barkan. The essay is entitled Plutocrats at Work: How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy and it’s published by Dissent Magazine.

Also on the panel will be Gara LaMarche, President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies and a Senior Fellow at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, who can be seen putting philanthropy on trial here, and Stanley Katz, Director of the Center for Arts and Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton University, who wrote this piece called Beware Of Big Donors.

I hope I see you all there tonight!

Also, this Friday I’ll be giving a talk at Cornell Tech called Making The Case For Data Journalism. Send me an email if you want to come to that, I’ll need to get you on the list. It’s at 12:30 in the Google building.

Finally, I had a lot of fun over the weekend at the Rebellious Lawyer’s Conference at Yale, which is a yearly conference organized by law students. I was on a panel concerned with Occupy and the law profession, organized by Zorka Milin, an amazing tax lawyer and activist, and the other panelists were the amazing and inspirational Akshat Tewary of Occupy the SEC and Rebecca Wilkins, also an activist tax lawyer who is writing a book about tax law for the rest of us that I can’t wait to read.

Categories: Uncategorized

Guest Post: Porn, Consent, and Obamneycare for Sex

This is guest post by Michael Carey. In his own words: I am a decidedly “alternative” math nerd, working in an environment where I’m on the wrong end of power and status relationships with a handful of conservatives.  (Like, “willing to say nasty things about the gays in public” conservatives.)  I have been an occasional pseudonymous contributor to the LGBT blog at Slate, Outward, on topics ranging from the poly closet to queer culture.

A sticky problem: Schrödinger’s Victim.
Amanda Marcotte concisely stated the issue: “Some folks really can’t handle the possibility that some women in porn might not be fully consenting.  Once you allow that possibility, then you have to allow the possibility that you have watched and gained pleasure from an act of rape.”
A handful of studios have tried to deal with this by including interviews in which performers describe what they enjoy about their work.  Unfortunately, the studio known for popularizing this practice has had its share of scandal.  The only thing you can confidently take away from an interview is that the participant wants to earn another paycheck.  It is part of the performance.  Appearing authentic and enthusiastic is part of the job.  As one activist performer once told me: “Horror films can be produced ethically and consensually: most are. Still, they contain performative non-consent and murder. As a consumer, it’s more important to be aware of production standards rather than performance standards when it comes to consent concerns.”

There is porn that (at least currently) carries a positive reputation: “alternative” professional fare like The Crash Pad and Pink Label TV, the jubilant amateur performances found in Dan Savage’s Hump!festival, the “Make Love, Not Porn” project.  But these generally cost more money and effort than the ubiquitously-available free clips that flood the web.  If we’re demanding that consumers think rationally about these choices, right at the moment when they’re feeling horny and impatient, we’re not making any progress.

We need to make ethical porn cheaper and more convenient than its alternatives.

An absurd solution: Obamneycare for Sex.
First impose a strict regulatory regime — frequent surprise visits by inspectors, mandatory STI tests, etc.  This parallels “community rating” and other regulations that force insurers to compete on service and admin costs, rather than finding innovative ways to charge premia without paying for care.
Second, give workers a union to negotiate pay and safety, and have producers form a trade organization with a common user base and payment system, with assurance that by participating, they’ll get a monopoly on the legitimate market.  This parallels the formation of exchanges, where customers can shop for services that meet reasonable minimum standards.

Lastly, because ethical production costs more — even compared to the best-behaved of today’s studios in the San Fernando Valley, let alone free stuff from Bulgaria or Thailand — you need a subsidy scheme that allows at least infrequent users to get their content for free.  Citizens would be entitled to a modest annual allotment of voucher codes, cashed in through the exchange.

Producers would compete to sell what the public wants to buy, and would face continuous scrutiny from regulators.  Consumers could rest assured that their objects of lust are safe, healthy, and fairly compensated.

Why reasonable people should take crazy ideas seriously.
This “solution” has at least two huge problems.  First, people will have to register for accounts using some kind of real-world ID.  Otherwise mass downloaders will be able to charge excessive bills to the taxpayer, for material they may never even get around to watching, to the taxpayer; and additionally we will have considerably difficulty verifying that sites aren’t faking sales.  As long as we treat porn use as shameful, this raises privacy concerns.  If people are hesitant to claim the subsidies, the system fails — a regulated market is a three-legged stool.  Second, if sex workers remain broadly stigmatized, officials charged with protecting them may be inclined to ignore complaints, or even engage in blackmail and abuse.  Consider the long and sordid history of cops re-victimizing women who have been struck by crime, because they perceive the women as “asking for it”.

It’s still worth thinking about the problem of how we keep sexual entertainment widely available, while ensuring that casual, occasional consumers don’t have to worry about risking “gain[ing] pleasure from an act of rape.”  That risk is something that ought to bother you.

Some people respond to abusive porn production by simply decreeing that Porn is Bad; those who enjoy it must be shamed and stigmatized.  Those of us who think that performative sex can be joyous, beautiful, and valuable, face a real moral burden in formulating a response to this problem that rejects sex-negativity and shame.  I suspect that unfortunately most anti-porn types, whether of the conservative religious or radical feminist stripe, are not interested in talking about ways to address abuse while keeping porn available, any more than “pro-life” activists want to talk about how contraception and sex ed reduce the abortion rate and improve women’s health.  I still think this is a conversation that the sex-positive community needs to have.  Especially any feminist men who useporn (i.e. all of us).

Perhaps the “exchange” idea —! — isn’t entirely crazy.  Sexual release is one of the most basic human drives.  Perhaps we should consider at least a modicum of sexual gratification to be a basic need, like shelter, food, and clean water.  If so, government subsidy shouldn’t be out of the question.  Germany allows those with disabilities to use part of their support stipend to hire a sexual surrogate, and this practice may soon spread to other parts of Europe.  We can imagine a society where sex work — even prostitution — is viewed as a valid choice of career, employing competent professionals who are treated with at least the same level of respect accorded to a gerontological nurse, a sewer technician, or anyone else who takes a demanding, sometimes-dirty job, and does it well.

In order to make that happen, though, we need high standards for health, safety, and compensation.  I don’t think that’s impossible to achieve, and I’m fairly certain it would be better than the situation we live with now, where workers can’t count on the state to protect them from criminals, and sometimes face public crackdowns on their livelihood that simultaneously infantilize and vilify them.  To make something like that happen, we have to first agree that we want it.

Categories: Uncategorized

Guest post: Be more careful with the vagina stats in teaching

This is a guest post by Courtney Gibbons, an assistant professor of mathematics at Hamilton College. You can see her teaching evaluations on She would like you to note that she’s been tagged as “hilarious.” Twice.

Lately, my social media has been blowing up with stories about gender bias in higher ed, especially course evaluations.   As a 30-something, female math professor, I’m personally invested in this kind of issue.  So I’m gratified when I read about well-designed studies that highlight the “vagina tax” in teaching (I didn’t coin this phrase, but I wish I had).

These kinds of studies bring the conversation about bias to the table in a way that academics can understand. We can geek out on experimental design, the fact that the research is peer-reviewed and therefore passes some basic legitimacy tests.

Indeed, the conversation finally moves out of the realm of folklore, where we have “known” for some time that students expect women to be nurturing in addition to managing the class, while men just need to keep class on track.

Let me reiterate: as a young woman in academia, I want deans and chairs and presidents to take these observed phenomena seriously when evaluating their professors. I want to talk to my colleagues and my students about these issues. Eventually, I’d like to “fix” them, or at least game them to my advantage. (Just kidding.  I’d rather fix them.)

However, let me speak as a mathematician for a minute here: bad interpretations of data don’t advance the cause. There’s beautiful link-bait out there that justifies its conclusions on the flimsy “hey, look at this chart” understanding of big data. Benjamin M. Schmidt created a really beautiful tool to visualize data he scraped from the website through a process that he sketches on his blog. The best criticisms and caveats come from Schmidt himself.

What I want to examine is the response to the tool, both in the media and among my colleagues.  USAToday, HuffPo, and other sites have linked to it, citing it as yet more evidence to support the folklore: students see men as “geniuses” and women as “bossy.” It looks like they found some screenshots (or took a few) and decided to interpret them as provocatively as possible. After playing with the tool for a few minutes, which wasn’t even hard enough to qualify as sleuthing, I came to a very different conclusion.

If you look at the ratings for “genius”  and then break them down further to look at positive and negative reviews separately, it occurs predominantly in negative reviews. I found a few specific reviews, and they read, “you have to be a genius to pass” or along those lines.

[Don’t take my word for it — search google for:

rate my professors “you have to be a genius”‘

and you’ll see how students use the word “genius” in reviews of professors. The first page of hits is pretty much all men.]

Here’s the breakdown for “genius”:


So yes, the data shows that students are using the word “genius” in more evaluations of men than women. But there’s not a lot to conclude from this; we can’t tell from the data if the student is praising the professor or damning him. All we can see that it’s a word that occurs in negative reviews more often than positive ones. From the data, we don’t even know if it refers to the professor or not.  


Similar results occur with “brilliant”:


Now check out “bossy” and negative reviews:


Okay, wow, look at how far to the right those orange dots are… and now look at the x-axis.  We’re talking about fewer than 5 uses per million words of text.  Not exactly significant compared to some of the other searches you can do.


I thought that the phrase “terrible teacher” was more illuminating, because it’s more likely in reference to the subject of the review, and we’ve got some meaningful occurrences:

And yes, there is a gender imbalance, but it's not as great as I had feared. I'm more worried about the disciplinary break down, actually. Check out math -- we have the worst teachers, but we spread it out across genders, with men ranking 187 uses of "terrible teacher" per million words; women score 192. Compare to psychology, where profs receive a score of 110.  Ouch.

And yes, there is a gender imbalance, but it’s not as great as I had feared. I’m more worried about the disciplinary break down, actually. Check out math — we have the worst teachers, but we spread it out across genders, with men ranking 187 uses of “terrible teacher” per million words; women score 192. Compare to psychology, where profs receive a score of 110.  Ouch.


Who’s doing this reporting, and why aren’t we reading these reports more critically?  Journalists, get your shit together and report data responsibly.  Academics, be a little more skeptical of stories that simply post screenshots of a chart coupled with inciting prose from conclusions drawn, badly, from hastily scanned data.

Is this tool useless? No. Is it fun to futz around with? Yes.

Is it being reported and understood well? Resounding no!

I think even our students would agree with me: that’s just f*cked up.


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