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Aunt Pythia’s advice

January 17, 2015

My, my, my. It’s been a while. Aunt Pythia plum forgot about her duties last Saturday, what with all the math nerds and such in San Antonio.

Many apologies! But don’t think Aunt Pythia didn’t miss you, because nothing could be less true: Aunt Pythia positively pined for you this last week. It was excruciating and slightly adorable. Trust me on that one.

Before I begin, Aunt Pythia wants to share her latest knitting pattern with you, since it’s butt cold here in the East and was even freezing cold in Texas, so we all need cowls. Yes we do, and here’s the one I’m making (along with the hat!):

Mine is burgundy and black. And I've heard from good sources that this doesn't actually look like Klimt at all, even though it's called a "Klimt cowl." Artistic license.

Mine is burgundy and black. And I’ve heard from good sources that this doesn’t actually look like Klimt’s art at all, even though it’s called a “Klimt cowl.” Artistic license.

Isn’t that just darling? And warm? Aunt Pythia knew you’d agree.

OK, onto the day’s delightful task. I am feeling more than usually oracle-esque today, tell me if you agree in the comments below. And in any case,

please please please

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,

What has happened to the Occupy movement? In the media that I read, it is totally disappeared. I was thinking that you were still involved, at least in Finance. Right now, it seems like the current administration is owned by Wall Street bankers. That can’t be a good situation. Is there a mathematical angle to this?

Missing Person

Dear Missing Person,

The Alt Banking group still meets every week on Sunday afternoons. We often have super interesting guest speakers and we’ve been writing pieces for the Huffington Post. We also continue to get positive feedback about our book and our cards. Feel free to come to the meetings! And even if you can’t come, you can get on the mailing list by emailing that request to alt.banking.OWS@gmail.com.

In terms of the Obama administration, yes, it’s owned by Wall Street, and to be honest I didn’t think it could get worse but we’ll see if I’m wrong starting now. I hear the Republican congress has even worse plans for watering down Dodd Frank than have already been exposed.

Jesse Eisenger’s recent column was right on, in my opinion. If Obama wants to redeem himself and leave a less-than-shameful legacy, he needs to act big right now. Also, keep an eye on Bernie Sanders from now on, as well as Liz Warren.

There is nothing truly mathematical about this, sadly.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I live in San Francisco, but I work on international human rights not in the tech industry. Naturally, a handful of my friends work at Google or at start-ups – things that fall under the umbrella of “tech.”

I had dinner with them tonight and I walked away feeling very agitated. Whenever I hang out with them, I always walk away with the sense that they think they’re smarter than me. I can’t figure out if this is my projection onto them or they really give off this attitude.

The night was going fine but then we talked about the Google shuttles fiasco. We had a friend visiting from out of town who was curious why people were protesting the buses. I told her that some people felt that it was reducing access to local transport, since they used government bus stops. All three of my tech friends, two of whom work at Google, scrambled to tell me 1. that I have a skewed perception, I’m blowing things out of proportion, and that I don’t have an accurate assessment of the situation 2. that they really haven’t caused an decrease in access to services and 3. that now that Google has an official contract with the MTA, that everything is fine and resolved.

My response to 1 was that I was merely explaining, in one sentence, why there were protests to someone who is unfamiliar with the situation. I wasn’t trying to capture all the nuances in one sentence. My response to 2 was that I actually met a group of people from a disability advocacy group that had to stage a protest because the shuttles were blocking access to the municipal buses. It was causing situations like making blind people or people in wheelchairs go around a Google shuttle to get on a bus in the middle of a street. I never got to respond to point 3.

I know that the situation with Google and other tech industries is nuanced, but the lack of scrutiny and the immediate scramble for defending a large player like Google seems so ridiculous to me. I’m not a Google fangirl or any sort of product fangirl, so I don’t understand this mentality. When I gave the example of the disabled people lacking access to the city buses, one of the Google employees stated that it must have been some individual case of a badly trained bus driver. My response was that it happened enough that they had to protest, and that they’re going to hold Google responsible not the individual bus driver. He said they were wrong for doing that. I think he’s wrong for thinking that!

I guess my questions are this: Are my tech friends assholes? Is the future of America doomed if privileged people are so threatened by simple conversations like this? And how do I engage with people like that without feeling like I’m being talked down to/talked as if I’m not smart enough to understand?

Don’t Understand My Brethren That Emphasize Constant Hurrahs In Electronics/Tech Seriously


First of all, awesome sign off.

Second of all, this is not about you being dumb. This is about them being defensive. Defensiveness leads to terrible reasoning abilities, so the only way for defensive people to win arguments, since they can’t do it with their logic, is to do it with a bullying attitude. In other words, they aggressively describe their stupid reasoning, and then act like you must be an idiot if you don’t see what they are saying as obvious. But it’s all a front because they know they have nothing to stand on. If they weren’t defensive, they would treat you like an intelligent person and ask you what you think.

Important Life Lesson: 99 times out of 100, if you are in a conversation where the person talking to you is making you feel dumb, then it’s about them, not you. It means they feel dumb about something and they are compensating. If you can, turn it around on them immediately, even if it’s as simple as saying, “you’re acting like my points are dumb, but I don’t think they are, I’m just trying to have a conversation. Is there something about this topic that makes you uncomfortable?”

So, why the defensiveness? Here’s the thing, Google employees work for Google, and it’s kind of a cult, like many companies are, and they feel lucky to be there and want other people to think they’re lucky too, so they defend things even when those things don’t make sense.

I actually don’t think they are any weirder in this regard than people who work in other industries, defending things like the wisdom of financial engineering or the wisdom of promoting fossil fuel. People are pretty good at defending their own interests. These guys just happen to be working at a very recognizable place.

In terms of approaching the topic, if you ever choose to discuss this again, I would suggest talking about what would happen if the Google buses ceased to exist – how would Googlers get to work? To what extent would that interfere with municipal buses? Certainly traffic would increase, for example. And since everyone has the right to go to work, you are working from a super reasonable starting position, namely thinking through the pluses and minuses of the Google bus system. Admit there are pluses and maybe the other side can start to admit there are minuses.

Or you could just hang out with other folks.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. I could be wrong, they could just really think they’re smarter than you. Cults also have a way of encouraging that kind of thing. But if they really think so, they might admit it. Ask them if they think they are smarter than “non-Googlers” and see what they say.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What are your predictions for kinky sex in the UK now that they banned all fun porn?

Curious Sub

Dear Curious,

What? Seriously? Oh wait, yes. Among the outlawed activities is “facesitting,” which makes little sense to me, given that “unlike smothering, in facesitting the bottom partner is not deprived of air.” What’s next, banning doggy style?

Also, female ejaculation is now banned. What? This is one of the few indications in porn that the woman is alive, and now we’re banning it. That makes sense.

OK, well, it’s dumb. And stupid as well, since the internet will provide horny people from the UK with plenty of facesitting and female ejaculation opportunities if they so desire. Basically it’s a loss of market share. I’m tempted to add “and nothing else” but when market share gets moved to places further in the shadow, things get less consensual and more coerced, and that’s never good.

Auntie P


Aunt Pythia,

Fivethirtyeight recently published the article “Economists Aren’t As Nonpartisan As We Think”. What really interested me in this piece was the author’s chart that demonstrated that on average, political bias has crept into the numerical results of economic research.

In the footnotes they explained a bit more: “Specifically, we ran a regression of numerical results, which were standardized within fields, on predicted ideology while controlling for field. Among the models we ran, the R squared ranged from 0.07 to 0.14.”

I did a little searching and found that R squared values can be misleading. Either way this single result with a R squared value of 0.07 – 0.14 seems a bit weak-sauce if you are trying to support such a broad claim as “economists are partisan”.

So, my questions for you is what does the chart in the Fivethirtyeight article mean? What is the meaning of the R squared value in this research. Is this a robust claim?

Many Thanks,
Mr. Should be studying for finals

Dear Mr. Should,

I’m gonna have to go Bayesian on your ass and mention that the title of the piece should have been, Economists Aren’t As Partisan As We Wish They Were, But We Knew That Already. Anyone who has ever read or spoken to economists would already suspect this.

Which is to say, I have a bayesian prior that this result is true, and their R squared value is enough to add fuel to my fire.

It’s not just economists, though. It’s everyone! See above w.r.t. Googlers, for example.

Here’s another thing getting in the way of me critiquing this paper: one of the authors, Suresh Naidu, is a good friend of mine.

In general, though, even when I already think something’s true, and when my friends are involved, I try to remember that data analysis is, at best, an evidence-gathering activity, not a proof. After it’s done a bunch of different ways and remains robust to various important choices, I start believing it more and more. For example, global warming is real.

Aunt Pythia


Well, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied! If you could, 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
  1. January 17, 2015 at 9:47 am

    As regards the Google story, there is the classic quote from Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” and similarly from George Orwell, “Plenty of people who are quite capable of being objective about sea urchins, say, or the square root of 2, become schizophrenic if they have to think about the sources of their own income.”


  2. Shecky R
    January 17, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Hey, Aunt Pythia, this is never a ‘waste of a Saturday morning’… I mean, I learned about the latest in British porn laws!


  3. David18
    January 17, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Cathy, thank you for the alt.banking pointers to Eisenger, Sanders, and Warren. Very instructive! I listened to Warren’s talk and it was very impressive and informative.

    Regarding the google story, the writer as a woman who works in a human rights organization is typically *hyper* empathic compared with people in tech who are typically *hypo* empathic (but *hyper* systemic) and I suspect that the writer’s frustration has much to do with her far greater empathic sensitivity compared with the “tech” googlers. She should see that she is empathically gifted relative to the general population and certainly so compared with the *hypo* empathic “tech” googlers.

    As Cathy mentioned, it is not good enough to complain about the google buses which is a far better alternative than having everyone drive to work but rather to come up with a solution to the problem. A possible solution is that google buses should not be at bus stops when city buses are scheduled to be there. A GPS system on city buses and google buses could automatically alert the public of google violations and google would pay a $10,000 fine for each violation which would be automatically paid. This is a nice technical solution that should appeal to “tech” *hyper* systemic googlers. That is, speak to them in a language they understand. As a *hyper* empathizer, she as the gift to be able to do so.


    • January 18, 2015 at 12:32 am

      I pretty much agree with that assessment. In my experience, engineers (of all stripes) are among the most thick-headed, “my way or the highway”, Napolean Dynamite “duh, idiot!” types that I’ve encountered. And among software engineer colleagues (of whom I was one for a short while) really amazingly narrowly educated about the world. (Graduate of Harvard and not know when WWII occurred, for example.)


  4. Auros
    January 17, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    My spouse is about to start working at Google, and plans to see if they can track down whoever at Google is responsible for the shuttle program, and write them a note asking if they’ve put any serious effort into working directly with the municipal transit services to simply increase the number of public buses going where Google would want them to go.

    I find the expansion of private shuttle services kind of ridiculous. In the grand scheme of things, it makes no sense at all for Google, Oracle, Facebook, Apple, etc, to all run separate buses for only their own employees, running along similar routes.


    • Min
      January 19, 2015 at 12:57 pm

      Sure it makes sense, if you do not want to mingle with the hoi polloi.


      • Auros
        January 19, 2015 at 6:44 pm

        I think if you actually put it to the folks who ride the shuttles, the vast majority of them would be fine with sharing buses with the “proles”, as long as the buses still went exactly where they want to go, and featured comfy seats and WiFi. My spouse is, after all, about to be one of those riders, and I’ve talked about this issue with several of my friends who are either current or former Googlers. There are a handful of the exclusionary types, but they are really not the majority. It’s just that most of the people who would be fine with true public transit, are not making noise about it, because they’re busy doing their actual jobs.

        In any case, what I was referring to was the corporate perspective. Even if they continued being exclusionary, the tech giants would save money by operating a consolidated service. Why should you need to send 3-6 different shuttles to the same neighborhood in SF, to service 3-6 different campuses? It’s not like Googlers live in one neighborhood, and Facebookers in another. It would be more efficient to have a single line, run it more frequently, and pack it to full capacity with fewer stops in the residential areas. Any time lost in the drop-off phase (getting on and off of 101) would likely be more-than-made-up-for by the reduction in the amount of time spend in the residential streets.

        I’ve heard that very occasionally people actually do work / have meetings inside the shuttle, which can have some sensitivity to whether people from outside the company are riding with you, but I’m skeptical that’s a common enough, and valuable enough, use case to override the time and cost savings involved in just moving people around more efficiently.


      • Auros
        January 19, 2015 at 6:46 pm

        (I used to do work for a tech job in Sunnyvale on CalTrain and the VTA light rail, so it’s not like you CAN’T do that on true public transit. It’s only if you want to be able to have a loud conversation about a sensitive project that the privacy thing even matters.)


  5. Name
    January 18, 2015 at 6:22 am

    “Ask them if they think they are smarter than “non-Googlers” and see what they say.”

    You must be joking, right?

    It’s obvious that Googlers are statistically smarter than average, just look at the number of STEM phd in their workforce.


    • January 18, 2015 at 8:03 am

      Well, “smart” is an overloaded term. Obviously they are good at programming software. The question is whether they are also great at figuring out how to think about larger societal issues, especially ones that are complicated and involve people.


  6. January 18, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    Klimt cowl looks sorta like this: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Klimt_Tree_of_Life_1909.jpg
    Well, more than it looks like Rembrandt.


  7. Min
    January 19, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    The Google shuttle bus debacle is disquieting. Other shuttle buses, such as those that go to the airport, to hotels, even up to Napa, come and go back and forth without causing such problems. The setup benefits Google and its employees, while passing on the cost to others, mainly those who take city buses, AKA the proles. Now, I suppose that Google pays San Francisco for the privilege of letting its shuttle buses use city bus stops. But apparently it is not paying enough, or the city is not doing right by its citizens.

    What appears to be happening is crony capitalism, whereby politicians give the capitalists special treatment at the expense of the citizenry. In addition, we are seeing a hardening of class boundaries, the creation of a Walled Garden for the elite, while the lower orders wail and gnash their teeth outside. We are not there yet, but this seems to be a movement in that direction. This is the kind of thing that does not end well, although caste societies can last for centuries. It is disturbing that it is occurring in San Francisco, one of the most liberal cities in the US.


  8. Min
    January 19, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    @ Mr. Should

    We do not expect economists to be fudging their numbers. Also, their methodology should be good enough to filter out most bias. So even if some gets through, the effect should be small.

    BTW, this sort of thing is why scientists should, and do lean against their own inclinations, expectations, and presuppositions. They really try to prove themselves wrong.


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