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Aunt Pythia’s advice

Readers, did you know Aunt Pythia is a rabid biker? And did you know that the High Bridge just opened for the first time in 40 years? Aunt Pythia is itching to bike all over it as soon as she’s shot this Saturday’s wisdom wad all over your browser.

This is a pic from 1900.

The High Bridge in 1900 connecting Manhattan and the Bronx. I love biking to other boroughs.

Fun facts about the High Bridge:

  1. It’s been closed for more than 40 years.
  2. It used to be an aqueduct.
  3. It is the oldest standing bridge in NYC.

Let’s do this, folks, we got stuff to do today! You too, amiright? Enough already with the chitchat then.

After cleansing yourself from today’s drivel, please:

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all 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 apologise, in advance, for the long question. After years spent battling one identity crisis after another, I (sort of) figured out, a few years ago, that my shtick was: angsty, feminist, WOC in STEM, and social justice advocate with a love for funky thrift store fashion finds. Over the years, I have tried to train myself to channel all my angst into a dark sense of humor while perfecting the smokey eye look.

As a result, I supposedly “exude an air of confidence which can excite and/or terrify people” according to quite a few people. As someone who was an outcast growing up in an extremely repressed country, this transition has worked out surprisingly well for the most part after my move to the first wold. The issue arises when I’m with my fellow science grad students.

As the only female in my program in my particular subfield (and often the only female or POC in most of my classes) with a very low tolerance for bullsh-t, I seem to find myself isolated again. I don’t mind being labelled the feminist killjoy when I call out intolerant behavior or when I’m just bulldozing over people. I refuse to accept the notion that minority grad students have to be at the bottom of the food chain. I get paid too little and love my field too much to not take pride in my work. I have close friends in other programs, but in my immediate professional family, I feel like everyone shies away from speaking to me. I sometimes wonder if the problem is that there a is a savvier way of being myself that I just don’t know of. The emphasis on networking for grad students makes me feel like this is something that I should care about. Please help?

She sells sea–oh, screw it.

Dear SSS-osi,

There’s a lot there, but let me just start by saying, thanks for writing and you’ve come to the right place.

Just this morning, Aunt Pythia woke up with that familiar yet unnerving and highly anxiety-provoking feeling that she’s gone ahead and done it once again: she’s been too much, somewhere and somehow, and the poor sensitive folks of that place and that manner of the moment are still reeling from her awful behavior.

As a fellow bulldozer, in other words, I know exactly what you mean. And in my darkest moments I succumb – temporarily – to the idea that I need to stop calling out intolerant and/or obnoxious behavior, that I should just sit there silently not mentioning injustice, that I should lean towards making people feel comfortable over so rudely asking them to acknowledge bullshit.

But then, when fully awake and reading the newspaper, or walking around outside, or even just drinking my morning coffee, I change my mind. After all, you and I, we have benefitted more from our sassy approach than have we suffered. There are people who love us and that must mean we’re not intolerable to be with, right? And although we sometimes go overboard and make mistakes, the world really could use a few more hot-headed loudmouths with our perspective, no?

Public service, world, you’re welcome.

Truth is, people can’t handle you because they’re not secure enough. They don’t “know what to do with you” so they avoid you, and I think it’s a pretty good indication that they really aren’t much fun. It’s kind of like, when you’re looking for some action, and you ask someone, “on a scale of 1 to 10, how sexual are you?” and they say, “I’m a 4,” then you believe them. In fact, subtract 2. The answer I was looking for was 17. Time to move on.

Advice: Go find other people who can be real with you. They’re out there, and one great aspect of being completely over-the-top real is that other people self-select for us. The ones who stick around can be trusted. That’s not to say you don’t go to grad student mixers, but go with the intention of just being completely yourself, and hilarious and smokey eyed and angsty, and some people – me, me!! – will naturally gravitate towards your amazing self. If that doesn’t happen, their loss.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. in terms of being close to your colleagues, I’d suggest study partners for specific problem sets or classes. Ask someone to meet over coffee, since that’s highly unthreatening and could well blossom into friendship.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a female in her late 20’s who also happens to be

  1. aspergian,
  2. asexual,
  3. religious/conservative (I guess the relational boundaries of the (3) are pretty easy to accept for me because of the (2)), and
  4. not particularly attractive.

I would really like to get married eventually, but I feel like I can’t understand and relate to people on so many levels, that P(marrying | (1), (2), (3), (4)) = 0. Actually, columns like yours are very useful to me to get to know what’s going on in other people’s minds, but the more I know, the more I feel like I belong to another planet.

My social life revolves solely around interest groups (nerdy and church-y), where I do meet quite a lot of nice guys. At best, though, they consider me a “bro”, which is great but not helpful, because even if I’m asked out, it is not a date. I have already tried asexy dating sites but unfortunately they are too sparsely populated.

What do you think? Should I just give up the thought of lifelong companionship and focus on my career and interests? Or should I decorate my laptop with a “lonely heart” sticker? Or what else? I’d really appreciate some advice.

Somewhat Preoccupied Individual Not Suited To Experience Relationships


Fantastic sign-off, wow.

So, I never knew about adult asexuals before, but this Guardian article explains it pretty well, at least for the person who they interviewed. In his case, he found someone to marry by joining, which seems like a valuable resource and is a great example of what is so amazing about the internet.

So, it seems that asexual people like companionship and partnership like anyone else, just without sex. And, as long as that’s been made clear to both people in advance, and they are both cool with it, there’s really no issue at all.

Except for one thing, namely the rarity of your potential mates. As you are well aware, most men are sexual, and asking them to be in a long-term intimate relationship without sex would likely be a dealbreaker. So to optimize your chances, I’d give up on finding a boyfriend through your social groups, and I’d go straight towards asexual meeting places, either virtual or in person.

Turns out there are 44 asexual Meetup groups, and I suggest you start attending!

As for your concerns about being “not particularly unattractive,” you could either ask for advice from someone you trust on how to flatter your look, or you could just wear stuff that makes you very comfortable. That’s already an attractive feature. But in any case I’m guessing this society of asexual people is pretty open-minded.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

How can I find meaning in my life as a pure mathematician? I am a tenure-track professor, and I spend so much time studying and giving myself so much of a headache trying to understand totally pure math notions like perfectoid spaces, almost ring theory, p-adic Hodge theory, etc. These may of course have some practical use some day, but not today. And of course, I teach calculus and whatnot to mostly disinterested students, but teaching is not really where my heart is.

I don’t have a significant other because I am short and fat and all I want to do is study the aforementioned esoterica all day. I love it, there is nothing else I would rather do, but when the going gets tough, like when I can’t follow a proof, or when the road to all the mathematical topics I have to learn seems too long, I find myself wondering why am I beating myself over and giving myself such a hard time trying to follow such technical minutiae that don’t have any impact at all on the world?

It makes me unhappy, and so my mom tells me I should go work for Google and make significantly more money and have a 9-5 job and do work that makes a difference. I have no interest at all in working for Google, i.e “industry,” or making lots of money. I love the freedom that academia provides. On non teaching days I can get up when I want to, stay home in my pjs, etc. And of course I enjoy the freedom to study what I want. But how can I make studying pure math meaningful?

Almost Going Into Industry

Dear AGII,

A few comments:

  1. It is not true that short and fat people don’t date. That’s a myth. Here’s an entirely unscientific article that supports me in this.
  2. You can definitely go out and “make a difference,” but what kind of difference?
  3. Your mom just wants you to be happy, and she thinks making more money will make you happy. Will it? I don’t think so, you said yourself you don’t care about money.
  4. Academia is painfully slow, but you love it. You said so yourself.
  5. Teaching is the shit work of academia. Some of your students – most, actually – are disinterested, but some are not. They are awesome.
  6. The shit work of other jobs is much less awesome and (often) much more like shoveling actual shit.
  7. Having said all that, I left academia, and you know that, so it feels like you’re asking me to give you permission to do so, which I do.
  8. But even as I give you permission, know that some people (like my husband) are made for academia and would suffer outside it, and other people (like myself) have left academia but it’s not like that suddenly made them happy, because they are just naturally identity crisis prone people who are never actually happy and always wonder what they fuck they should be doing with their lives.
  9. Plus, I don’t actually want you to be happy.

Hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Hi Aunt Pythia!

I am a 30 year old female in the tech industry living in Washington DC. My family and I immigrated some 20 years ago and I am by far the only one doing well. I am looking down the barrel of becoming my parents’ living retirement plan and housing provider in a few years and, as such, I am trying to get as much traveling and ‘living’ out of the way before I take up that job.

I am doing relatively well financially: make a decent income, paid off my student loans, rent a cheap place, live on a budget, and trying to save 14% of my income towards my own retirement, but I’m also looking at what’s coming and thinking I need to figure out a way to prepare financially for that and I just don’t know how.

How would you advise someone like me in financially preparing for what is coming when what is coming involves elderly parents:
– With no savings
– With no property
– With no retirement plan
– With no ability to help themselves (language barrier)
– With very small social security payments (~$500 for the both of them)

Please keep in mind that I am not resentful of the fact that my mom and dad need the help (my unhelpful siblings, on the other hand, I do resent), I’m just worried I’m financially unprepared for it and trying to balance that with my own wishes/dreams.

Future Caregiver

Dear FC,

Well, I really don’t know. I think you should talk to someone who does, lickety split. Here are some basic facts that you’ll need to have ready:

  1. Are you parents green card holders?
  2. Are they eligible for medicare? Look here for some useful info on that.
  3. Are they prepared to go back to their home country for retirement? Is it safe? Does it have a safety net for them? Is it cheaper to live there? Do they have family and friends there still?
  4. Maybe the good place to start with possible future scenarios is finding other immigrants who have features similar to your parents but are slightly older, and see how they are living. I’d interview their functional children to see what they learned.
  5. As for your siblings, it could be a major problem down the line, but first thing’s first. Don’t take on the whole world at once.

Aunt Pythia


Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?

Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form for later or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

A huge win for contractors and franchise workers

Today I’m celebrating some good news for working-class people in this country. Namely, the definition of “employee” is changing, making it easier for employees at McDonalds and other places to complain about poor treatment. The good news comes via a National Labor Relations Board ruling yesterday.

I wrote previously about the economics of McDonalds franchises, but it comes down to this: 90% of the low-level employees at McDonalds don’t technically work for McDonalds at all; instead, they work for a local franchise owner, who in turn rents stuff, including the McDonalds brand, from the parent corporation.

In spite of the technical and legal framework, the parent corporation controlled the burger flippers at a minute level, through surveillance, customer service policy, branding requirements, and most importantly through controlling the margins of the franchise owner.

The legal separation, which was solidly working until yesterday, meant that employees couldn’t complain about bad treatment of their employer, McDonalds, but rather had to complain only about the way the local franchise owner treated them. This prevented large-scale unionization attempts among other things. The new ruling means that the workers will have the right to negotiate with McDonalds corporation as a “joint employer.” Another way of saying this is that McDonalds will have much more liability when it concerns mistreatment of franchise workers.

An example of how this is good news is the following: it used to be true that if one McDonalds unionized, and demanded and received better wages, it would have little knock-on effects and indeed it would be quite difficult to pull off, given how tight the margins are for franchisees. Now, with the new ruling, a second McDonalds location could possibly use that one example as leverage in a bargaining agreement. Moreover, as a joint employer, McDonalds corp cannot shut down a franchise just for unionizing.

The ruling extends well beyond McDonalds. In fact the original case was a company that hired contractors to do its recycling. It will likely mean that it will in general be much harder for corporations to create legal distance between itself and the people hired to do work for that company, so contractors of all varieties, as long as the parent company has a substantial amount of control over the workers.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tipping, power, and the gig economy

Power is the opposite of dependency. I learned this definition from Adam Reich when he came to talk to my Occupy Summer School students this summer about sociology and the OurWalmart struggle.

It’s useful and convincing: you have power over someone if they are dependent on you.

So it makes sense that systems of tipping gives us power as consumers. Waiters, or other service people, are dependent on us for tips, which are often a large part of their overall salaries, so we have power over them.

In fact, it gives us a kick, a real but short-lived kind of status in service situations. We get to temporarily play the part of the “little lord.” Some people exploit this role, demanding too much, asking for special favors, and enjoying having someone do our bidding. Others are over-sensitive to slights; if they feel like their status is being questioned at any level, they switch from little lords to little tyrants, demanding attention and extra work from their waiters. We’ve all seen this.

When you ask an American, we like our tipping systems, and we don’t want to give them up, even though it leads to all kinds of financial problems for restaurant workers. Partly this is because, as part of the power relationship, if the waitstaff or serviceperson wants to get a good tip from us, they have to be nice to us. They have to make us feel like they like us, and, a secondary requirement, that they like their job. Surly waiters are waiters who don’t depend on tips and who make us realize that being a waiter isn’t always such a great job. Not that this entire dynamic is obvious to us every time we enter into a tipper-tippee relationship, but it’s there, lurking.

So far nothing I’ve said is at all new. Tipping has been around for a while. But there is a new kind of service economy evolving, which I call “the gig economy,” but which tellingly has been described as “the sharing economy” by some.

So, if you hire an Uber or Lyft driver to drive you somewhere, the payment has become somewhat invisible, since it happens on your credit card via the app, and instead of tipping you rate your driver (although you can tip as well). in fact the “cashless and seamless” experience of being driven by an Uber driver is one of the selling points. “Hassle-free” is a commonly heard phrase around the gig economy.

But in terms of power dynamics, replacing tipping by rating doesn’t do much, since Uber drivers are entirely dependent on their overall rating to stay employed. And you might object because riders get rated as well, but let’s face it, the worst thing that could happen to a poorly rated rider is that he gets kicked off the app and has to use another rider app, but the worst thing that can happen to a driver with a bad rating is he could lose his job.

My fear is this: the invisibility of the transaction makes us as consumers even less aware of the power dynamics than we already are. We have gone from a transactional relationship, in a restaurant, to a inequitable faux-friendship. The marketing of the “sharing economy” doesn’t help:


Why is this a problem? Some of the most important lessons I teach my children is how to be grateful, polite, and non-tyrannical to people who are serving us, at a restaurant or wherever. It’s part of learning how to be an empathetic person, and a balancing out of one-on-one human interactions which I think is super important. I want them to know that service is not servitude, and that everyone is a person just trying to do their best. Of course, this goes for any kind of transactional service, not just the tipping kind.

However, the first step in extending gratitude to people who are extending us a service is to know when that transaction is occurring. If every bill is magically and invisibly settled, then my kids won’t even recognize that it existed, and instead of gratitude for help, they might just think the person they just interacted with really liked them. Another way for my kids to learn empathy is, of course, for them to have jobs in which they experience the other side of the transaction, and I hope they do have jobs like that, although it’s getting much harder to get such a job than it used to be.

Maybe I’m being an old fuddy-duddy here. After all, when I think about the future of work, I often come to the conclusion that sooner or later, once the robots are doing lots of the grunt work and hard labor, the rest of us will be more or less in service to each other. There will be teachers, and personal trainers, and personal assistants, and life coaches, and people who hang out with old people, and nannies, and so on. Every now and then society will support people who just think – although they too will provide service in the form of essays or research – or people who just have loads of cash and just entertain themselves all the time.

So, maybe it’s old-fashioned to want balance in each relationship; instead, we can enjoy the “friendly interactions” of servicing one person and then turning around and being serviced by someone else in another realm. Maybe someday I’ll be an Uber driver, smiling at my rider, then I’ll meet up with my personal trainer who is extremely nice to me. Maybe the seamlessness and cashlessness of each future transaction will free everyone up to talk about politics, and philosophy, and what have you, instead of haggling over the bill.

Or, and here’s my pessimistic side emerging, or maybe we’re watering down the appearance of power relationships because we have redefined the word “innovation” as “ways to make rich peoples lives easier” and we call something a “disruption” if a bunch of people’s job security is weakened and they need to rely on rating systems – and need to claim to like their job and their customers – in order to scrape by.

What do you think? What are the consequences of the gig economy on power dynamics between people?

Categories: Uncategorized

Links about big bad data

There have been a lot of great articles recently on my beat, the dark side of big data. I wanted to share some of them with you today:

  1. An interview with Cynthia Dwork by Clair Cain Miller (h/t Marc Sobel). Describes how fairness is not automatic in algorithms, and the somewhat surprising fact that, in order to make sure an algorithm isn’t racist, for example, you must actually take race into consideration when testing it.
  2. How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election by Robert Epstein (h/t Ernie Davis). This describes the unreasonable power of search rank in terms political trust. Namely, when a given candidate was artificially lifted in terms of rank, people started to trust them more. Google’s meaningless response: “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine the people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.”
  3. Big Data, Machine Learning, and the Social Sciences: Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency by Hannah Wallach (h/t Arnaud Sahuguet). She addresses the need for social scientists to work alongside computer scientists when working with human behavior data, as well as a prioritization on the question rather than data availability. She also promotes the idea of including a concept of uncertainty when possible.
  4. How Big Data Is Unfair by Moritz Hardt. This isn’t new but it is a fantastic overview of fairness issues in big data, specifically how data mining techniques deal with minority groups.
  5. How Social Bias Creeps Into Web Technology by Elizabeth Dwoskin (h/t Ernie Davis). Unfortunately behind the pay wall, this article talks about negative unintended consequences of data mining.
  6. A somewhat different topic but great article, The MOOC revolution that wasn’t, by Audrey Watters (h/t Ernie Davis). This article traces the fall of the mighty MOOC ideals. Best quote in the article: “High failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs,” Caulfield suggests, “because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers.”
Categories: Uncategorized

Comparative advantage in international trade and in married life

What is Comparative Advantage?

You may have heard about comparative advantage. As a concept, it’s a neat and mathematically valid argument. It goes like this, as described in wikipedia:

Say you have two countries, England and Portugal, which both make and use cloth and wine, say at time 1. Their productivity is described in this chart:

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.35.35 AM

Which is to say that in England, it takes more work than in Portugal to produce one unit of either cloth or wine, maybe because of climate differences. In this sense, Portugal has an “absolute advantage” over England in both categories.

However, as I said, both England and Portugal make and use both products. So, if England needs one unit of each, it takes them 220 hours, and if Portugal wishes to consumer one unit of each, it takes them 170 hours to produce it.

Here’s where trade comes in. Starting at time 2, they decide to cooperate. Let’s say England focused on cloth, and make 2 units of cloth. That would take them 200 hours instead of 220 earlier. And let’s also assume Portugal focused on what it’s good at, namely making 2 units of wine. That would take them 160 hours, instead of 170. Then the countries could trade their extra units to each other, and both of them would have saved time and would have gotten the same amount of stuff.

Actually, there’s another way of thinking about it. Instead of working less, workers in England and Portugal could work the same number of hours and produce more stuff. They could use their extra stuff to trade for new things, and that excess would essentially be proof that this comparative advantage theory is a success.

Criticisms of Comparative Advantage

Comparative advantage is used as a reason that countries should engage whenever possible in free trade; it’s almost a religious belief for some economists. But, as you might have anticipated, there are some serious issues with comparative advantage. For example:

  • When comparative advantage kicks in for a given industry, the people in that industry lose jobs. Like wine-makers in England in the above example.  Even cloth makers in England might lose jobs if the actual demand for cloth is limited. Of course, the idea is that the economy of England as a whole benefits, so a few jobs lost should somehow be absorbed.
  • Also, you can’t simply expect the country that’s the best at a certain thing to be able to arbitrarily expand that industry and forget everything else. Think overfishing, or overgrazing: eventually there are diminishing returns.
  • Next, technology comes into play. When one country figures out how to be incredibly productive due to technological advantages, like for example huge farming machines and equipment, then it’s essentially impossible for other countries, without access to such technology, to compete, even if they have good climates. That means most farmers in other countries cannot compete with the United States from a productivity standpoint, for example, even putting aside the ludicrous farm bill, which subsidizes American farmers and further distorts their advantage.
  • Speaking of distortions, one argument against comparative advantage is that historically countries didn’t actually become powerful through exploiting comparative advantage and free trade. Instead, they imposed tariffs and such to nourish and grow internal industries.
  • If a country buys into comparative advantage, by need or by choice, they often find themselves overreliant on one product, the market of which could be volatile or fail. There’s plenty of historical evidence that this monoculture approach to economics is a bad idea. For example, Ireland went through a famine when there was a blight on their potatoes, even while it was exporting huge amounts of “money crop” grains to England, and more recently Ireland focused heavily on finance and technology, only to be severely hurt by the credit crisis.
  • Mostly, though, what is most troublesome about the modern worshipping of comparative advantage is that we end up using it as an excuse to exploit people. As my friend Jordan Ellenberg explained:

    If you apply comparative advantage to, say, the US and Bangladesh, what you get is “given existing conditions, the US should make computers, not work very hard, and be rich, Bangladesh should stitch T-shirts for Old Navy at 30 cents an hour, work really hard, and be poor.”

  • Not that they don’t want jobs in Bangladesh. They do, and generally speaking trade agreements with poor countries help people in those countries. It’s just that we have to also acknowledge our moral responsibility to people and to reasonable working conditions.

How does this relate to marriage?

Well, first let’s think about how to apply the theory of comparative advantage to a marriage, which people tend to do. The idea is that, instead of splitting up the chores with your spouse half and half, which causes unending arguments about whose turn it is, as well as wasted productivity, we instead decide “who’s good at what” and divvy up the chores in a more scientific manner.

Growing up, I did almost all the household chores while my brother did very few (and the ones we kids didn’t do, my mother did). it wasn’t because my parents told me that, as a girl, I was the natural choice, but because I just “seemed better” at everything. The result was that I did everything, and slowly my “advantage” over my brother – defined here as efficiency, not actual advantage – which was at first small, became large.

Of course nowadays parents rarely ask their kids to do chores, so chores have mostly become a marital dispute. And given that women are expected to be – and have been trained to be – both better at and more willing to do housework, they tend to have more practice at multi-tasking and the dishes.

We arrive at a problem similar to the Bangladesh/ US situation above. Again, Jordan nailed it:

In the sexist soup straight couples all swim in, “don’t keep score, everybody do what you’re best at” seems to invariably end up at the equilibrium “woman does 75% of the shitwork” and what the comparative advantage crowd says is you are not even allowed to be mad about this, women, it is ratified by science, accept that like the Bangladeshis you are in your proper place in the equilibrium state.

One of the problems with applying an economic theory to a marriage is that we don’t actually keep track of how much time it takes us to do various things, and even if we did do that we’d probably do it wrong. Just imagining watching the clock during dishes or laundry sounds silly, and never mind with being in charge of the grocery list, since depending on how you measure that, it could either take no time at all or take all your time. Plus, when you find yourself being petty about small things, you end up measuring your marriage along those petty lines, and even thinking about it that way.

My advice to married couples is to ignore scientific arguments, and instead think about a system that will minimize longterm resentment, which is poison in any marriage or relationship. And that might mean using comparative advantage in part, both as a way of figuring out what people are good at and what people like to do, but it will also probably include doing stuff that you hate and you’re bad at sometimes just to understand what the other person goes through.

After all, the essential ingredients in any marriage is a sense of teamwork, the dedication to alleviating the other person’s suffering, and a promise to encouraging one another’s fulfillment. And economics doesn’t have much to say about those things.

Categories: Uncategorized

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Readers! Aunt Pythia is extremely pleased to tell you that she’s on vacation in beautiful but arid northern California. This morning we’re planning a walk to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, and Aunt Pythia is even imagining a ride on a roller coaster.


It’s all flights of fancy and whimsy over here, if you catch my drift, which is perfect for doling out the advice. Honestly, every Saturday is a vacation for Aunt Pythia, but giving out advice whilst on vacation just can’t be beat.

If you want to be kind to Aunt Pythia, let her know! Please please please:

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m in my early fifties, and my kids are teens. I’ve lived in a small, boring city since they were born, and would like a change of pace. I have a job that would allow me to spend two or three months per year elsewhere, but I would have to pay rent. Should I go for it, or is it my duty to save every penny for my kids’ futures?

If it helps, there’s more than enough to pay for (European) college for everybody; there’s by far not enough for them to live of it.

Inverted Matrix

p.s. I ran exercise sessions in linear algebra for so many years you can wake me up at 3am and I would remember the formula for inverting matrices.

Dear Inverted,

It occurs to me that “The Inverted Matrices” would be a good band name.

It is by no means obvious that we should make ourselves miserable for the sake of college costs. Even so, I’m wondering if it’s possible to think differently, and less dramatically, about your nice plan.

In terms of the economics: have you considered subletting your apartment while you’re away? That could easily earn you some money which could offset your travel costs. Or you could think about what other way you could either save or make more money, and imagine it going directly to the “travel pot.” Would that make it easier to plan for?

In any event, it’s not just economic; your kids will also benefit from seeing interesting places. Maybe they’ll get into the planning parts of it with you. Or maybe, being teenagers, they’ll find a friend back home to stay with while you go. That would also be great!

Also, consider going away for three weeks instead of three months, it might be enough for you. For myself, in spite of my nearly daily fantasies about travel, when I’m actually away (like I am right now) I long for the comforts and familiarity of home after about 5 days.

If you decide none of this applies to you, and you’re going to blow the college savings accounts on an awesome summer in Paris, just remember this: you won’t be nearly as badly behaved as my friend’s parents who didn’t help pay for college at all and even stole her identity to take out credit cards in her name while she was away, resulting in her having terrible credit from the get-go. Don’t be that person.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have reached a point where I have pretty much exhausted all my emotional currency for finding romance. I’m at the love casino with my last $10, and I can risk gambling it away or cash in my chips and leave.

I have been at this point for several years now, sending men away rather than open my heart even a little bit. I know what I’m doing is self-destructive, that I’m taking the slow path to suicide with self-destructive behaviors that stem from lack of love and affection.

I should be a winner at this game. I’m smart and pretty and funny and well-liked. Do men just assume that women like that don’t have feelings or that we cannot be hurt? More importantly, what does a person do when they have nothing more of their self-esteem to invest in this game? I have so much confidence in so many areas of life, but I am shaken and defeated by the roulette wheel of dating.

Given Up Real Love

Dear GURL,

My heart aches for you. Knowing nothing specific about you, I can promise you that you’re not alone. This dating system we have is ruthless and defeating. I’m sure you’ve read this recent article from Vanity Fair about the dating apocalypse, and just in case you missed it the reaction from Tinder. The article is likely too painful to read, but I’ll give you a quote from a young ex-Ivy League investment banker in the first paragraph explaining his multi-women night’s plans: “You can’t be stuck in one lane … There’s always something better.” Barf.

The truth is, it’s not fair to say that Tinder that’s doing this to dating; Tinder is just making it more obvious. We’ve entirely commoditized sex, love, and even affection, and especially in places like New York where there are so many beautiful and single women, the single man feels like an idiot for settling with one. And Tinder is making every place feel like New York.

Now to your questions. Do men assume women don’t have feelings, or can’t be hurt? In some sense, yes. Here’s why I say that.

I think (many) men are better at learning the rules of a system and exploiting them viciously to their benefit. It may be purely socialization here, I don’t want to be sexist, but I’ve always been amazed how quickly the men around me adapt to the petty and arbitrary rules of power and status, whether in academics, finance, or engineering startups. Maybe it’s the testosterone? Whatever the reason, it’s pounding one’s chest stuff everywhere you look.

Not all men, mind you. But enough for one to imagine that there is in some sense a standard approach to putting your brain and your heart on hold, and just following the rules for all you’re worth. It makes sense when you’re in the army, kind of, but it also seems to hold in the mating game, where’s it’s downright obnoxious.

So in other words, I think those men have repressed their feelings, often, in the name of “winning” dating. So they (might) imagine that anyone they come into contact – i.e. other men who they’re competing with, or women who they’re attempting to woo – will also have done the same.

Let’s talk about the other men now, though. The ones that aren’t on Tinder, and that find themselves actually feeling stuff like loneliness and also – gasp – consider other people’s feelings. They exist but they’re harder to find. You want to meet them somehow, though, so I’d seek them out at meetups, bridge clubs, Nerd Nites, and other places where – gasp!! – actual ideas are being discussed.

And I’ll give you the advice I give many people in your position: meet people with the expectation of being friends, and open your heart to that. You might have only $10 to spend on love, but you might have thousands of friend bucks in the bank. And who knows, you might find that friend bucks are (eventually) convertible currency.

Oh, and read Why Love Hurts to understand more about the sociology of the love market.

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

  1. “modified because I use salted butter”
  2. “1 slightly rounded teaspoon of salt”

Why the extra salt?

And, Aunt Pythia, what kind of butter did Marlon Brando’s character use in The Last Tango in Paris? Salted or unsalted?

Maria Schneider

Dear Maria,

I’ve decided you’re referring to my recent recipe for identity crisis crepes. However, you misunderstood. The recipe calls for more salt, but I cut it down because I use salted butter.

Never watched that movie because it seemed nasty. And now that I have read the wikipedia article about it, I’m sure I’m right. But as you’re a character in it, I should think you’d remember the kind of butter used. Sheesh.

Auntie P


Aunt Pythia,

Do you like big butts, or can you lie?

Music Is eXcellent – Always Like Appreciating Tunes


Sir, I love big butts, thanks for asking! Also, I can absolutely lie; I’m amazing at lying, thanks for reminding me!

But I’m not lying about my love for big butts. Here’s how I feel in song:


Aunt Pythia


Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?

Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form for later or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

The seven work languages

You might have heard about “the five love languages.” They come from a ridiculously popular book by Gary Chapman by the same name, and they are purportedly the following:

  1. gifts,
  2. quality time,
  3. words of affirmation,
  4. acts of service (devotion), and
  5. physical touch.

Chapman’s idea is that, in order to be happier with your loved one, you figure out how they like to receive your love, instead of just doing to them what you’d have done to yourself. So you might like hugs and physical touch the most, but they might need you to say kind things to them. So you say nice things, and then they give you hugs, and everybody’s happy.

I like this list because it really does seem like some people respond more to certain things than others. Personally I’m a touch person, and someone who likes gifts seems almost fake to me, but putting them both on a list makes me realize that maybe we’re just wired differently. It helps me understand other people a bit more and reserve judgment.

I want to do the same thing but for work instead of love. The question changes from “how to you want to receive love” to “what motivates you to work?”. I’ve come up with the following list:

  1. money
  2. security
  3. status
  4. social connection
  5. making a positive contribution to the world
  6. relief from boredom/ organizing framework
  7. passion

Ideally an employer would offer to people what they care about. Personally I care about making a positive contribution to the world, but most employers only offer money.

I’m the freak here, I guess. Most people would say they work because they get paid. But really it’s not that simple when you think about it. Some people value money past the point of security, which is why I separated out those two. For that matter, some people care about money as status, but on the other hand academics (generally) care about status beyond money, which is why I made status a separate category too.

The next three are self-explanatory, and I think independent, and for the last category I’m including musicians and artists, people who do stuff in spite of having no reason to think it will ever pay.

Well, my list might be imperfect, but I think it’s good enough to make one point. Namely, that most of those reasons are actually pretty much independent of money after all, so maybe I’m not such a freak.

The work versus money issue matters because of the countless discussions about what might happen if we ever get to the “Star Trek economy” stage of existence, where our basic needs are met and we’re capable of doing other stuff. When we have free time and the resources and security not to worry about food or shelter, what would happen next?

Would we all just play video games 12 hours a day and eat too much? Would we feel useless and dried up and depressed?

I think the answer is, it depends on your personality. If you are the type of person who works out of passion, this new world order wouldn’t slow you down a bit; you’d have even more time to pursue your thing. If you want to contribute to the world, or create meaningful social connections, you’d find a way to do that with likeminded people. If you’re an academic who wants to be the smartest person in the world, you’ll have even more time to do that (but probably way more competition for the title).

My guess is that the only people that would be deeply disappointed are the people who now really really like money for its own sake. I don’t really think there are too many of these people, but they are the very people who might create obstructions to the Star Trek economy’s existence, because they are both powerful and rich in this setup, and potentially have the most to lose.

Categories: Uncategorized

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