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## Aunt Pythia’s advice, flannel version

Aunt Pythia aint gonna lie, she’s all about flannel this week. Right now she’s wearing flannel pajamas and snuggled underneath a flannel sheet. She’s looking forward to taking a warm bath and then getting into flannel lined pants and a flannel shirt, also lined.

[Aside: it's all about the lining.]

It’s been a particularly good year in flannel fashion, just in case you’re wondering. And, the clothes horse that Aunt Pythia is, she’s been sampling the various wares.

Conclusion: LLBean knows from comfy warmth.

Now that we’ve addressed the theme of the day, it’s time for some serious advice distribution. And remember, as you enjoy today’s column:

please, think of something flannelly to ask Aunt Pythia 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.

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have two (much) younger brothers, aged 4 and 5. Can you recommend any books/youtube videos/games I can read/play/do with them to help them learn about and enjoy math?

Rapt in Flatland

Dear RiF,

I really think that age range is too young to explicitly learn math from a book. But it’s not too young to have discussions (it’s incredibly important to make this an interactive Socratic dialog, not a monologue from an adult!) about, say,

1. the number line (where’s 0? What’s on the other side of 0?)
2. why the earth spins
3. what the solar system looks like (talking first without pictures or models)
4. why the moon looks different on different days

If that all seems cool, you can move on to

1. why there are seasons
2. why daylight is shorter in the winter
3. what really defines a “pattern”

In other words, super concrete things that require mind-expanding 3-dimensional visualizations and/or questioning of basic assumptions and definitions. You’d be surprised how many weeks these conversations can last with a 4- or 5-year old.

Also, please keep in mind that jigsaw puzzles, while not strictly logical exercises, are super awesome. And the Tower of Hanoi puzzle is super mathematical as well, the solution being a coded way to count in binary.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. Just gave my yearly contribution to wikipedia. Love that site.

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

My girlfriend has a genuinely very complicated family life, and, though she definitely loves me, has much much less time to be with me than I would like. I do love her, but now I’m increasingly irritated at being alone so much even while I nominally have a girlfriend, and it’s affecting my feelings and even my desire for her. But this is absolutely not something we can discuss. She is doing her best and that’s it, and gets upset at any discussion, sometimes even hostile. It may end badly.

Suggestions?

Increasingly Irritated

Dear II,

Yes, I do have a suggestions. Discuss it with her. It’s the only way you’re going to get relief and get to a relationship that works for both of you.

I think it might help to ask her to make an appointment with you to discuss the arrangement between you two, and it might also help to imply that it’s very important to your future as a couple. Give her some time to prepare for this discussion but not an arbitrary amount of time.

To be super explicit, here are some phrases you might want to use. “I’d really like to sit down with you and discuss our relationship and its future. It would be great to have a discussion in the next two weeks. Here are some times that work for me, and where we have as much time as we need to finish the first part of the conversation, which I know will be difficult for both of us.”

That way you’re both respectfully demanding a discussion and giving her the emotional credit that it’s going to be tough on her.

A bit more advice: don’t conflate why it’s difficult with your request for a discussion. Then she’ll ignore the request and focus on how difficult it is for her.

Now, you didn’t ask this, and I don’t know much about your situation, but can we spend just a moment wondering what’s really going on here? I don’t want to sound negative, but whatever it is that’s going on, she’s not spending much time with you and is not even really willing to explain why. Those two things in combination make me want to advise you to just break up with her now, and forget the discussion.

In fact, in breaking up with her, you might get a discussion for free, if she really wants to keep you. And if she doesn’t, you should be the hell out of there anyway and with someone who’s making time to be with you.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

As 50 approaches and work opportunities seem to be disappearing, do you really think it is possible to reinvent yourself and move into a different field?

I have applied my expertise in various quantitative and analytical fields to move from number cruncher (and forecasting) to more policy-based analysis roles. Is management the only answer? Every other role seems to be eaten by the progression of technology into various fields.

Grumpy Old Dude

Dear GOD,

My guess is that your salary and experience has made the lower-level analyst jobs both unappealing and out of reach for you. If you’re going to cost that much, the reasoning goes, you need to be doing more. Thus management.

Can I just make one argument in favor of management? If someone with your experience is in charge of telling people with very little or no experience how to do number crunching and analysis well, then things would be much more efficient. In an ideal world, that would be your role as manager – doling out sage advice to inexperienced analysts. So see if that makes sense and excites you.

But, to answer your question, it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. Some of my favorite people did so when they were 75.

Good luck!

Auntie P

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a Libertarian. I find it pretty much impossible to have an intelligent discussion with liberals about anything even remotely related to politics. The same is not true with conservatives, even though I disagree with them just as much. Consequently I just don’t participate in such conversations. Unfortunately I both love a good debate and live in a very liberal state, so this has lead me to feel somewhat isolated and starved for good conversation.

I’ve talked to other libertarian minded people and they’ve had similar experiences. Conservatives can be infuriating in some of their beliefs, but at least you can reason with them on most issues. With liberals it’s impossible, unless you already pretty much agree and are just quibbling over details.

You’re about as liberal as people come. Do you have any advice on how one could have a civil discussion with a liberal on issues where you have relatively fundamental disagreements?

Lonely Libertarian

Dear LL,

Yes. Discuss what your commonalities are first, and move cautiously and carefully outwards from there. Suggestions here include: Too Big to Fail banks are not OK, Google and the NSA stealing our private data is not OK, and other currently shitty things about the world.

Next, before going to the inevitable argument about how to fix these problems, talk about exactly why these things are not OK. Then start talking about the concept of fixing them – what characteristics would a solution enjoy? What is not acceptable, and why?

That should take enough time to get through lunch.

Good luck! And don’t forget, liberals make great lovers! They’re really into massages.

Auntie P

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

So, after all the turkey and pie and so forth, was the ratio of time spent agonising in the kitchen to time spent going ‘Yay, Thanksgiving’ a good one? And how would you determine a metric for Thanksgiving enjoyment?

(Asking in contemplation of what’s likely to happen at Christmas…)

Strange Oblivious Briton

Dear SOB,

I could totally tell you were British from your weird spelling of “agonizing!”.

For me, Thanksgiving was a success if 1) the turkey didn’t make anyone sick and 2) nobody threw plates frisbee-style at each others’ heads in the heat of an argument.

A particularly good sign is when people are still willing to hug each other when they finally leave the building, assuming anyone’s actually still there at all and hasn’t stormed off in a huff.

Haha just kidding, kind of. The truth is these big meals are just so so difficult, I honestly think you should keep standards as low as possible and be pleasantly surprised at every moment of happiness.

And whatever you do, stop agonizing in the kitchen, nobody will appreciate your effort anyway!! Just throw a bird into the oven and come back 6 hours later, seriously.

Merry Christmas,

Aunt Pythia

——

Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

## Aunt Pythia’s advice: sex at the end

You guys know Aunt Pythia loves you. And Aunt Pythia feels the love from you readers as well, especially in person (some of you are reticent to add comments online, for whatever reason).

So don’t take it the wrong way when I say this: you guys are nerds. I have like a 5-to-1 ratio of math-related versus sex-related questions, and today I’m effectively withholding the sex until the end as a hook to keep you guys.

Don’t get me wrong, I love nerd questions. Happy to answer them. But people! Let’s spice this up! And if you can’t go all the way to sex at least come up with something about breastfeeding in public or thereabouts. As you know, Aunt Pythia doesn’t make up questions – that would be beneath her – but she has no problem with prompts.

In other words, as you enjoy today’s column:

please, think of something sexy to ask Aunt Pythia 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.

——

Aunt Pythia,

What’s the deal with employers being dishonest in their job descriptions, and the general acceptance of this sort of unethical behavior? I work in a somewhat prestigious buy-side shop where I was told I’d be in a front-office quant research position. After I arrive, I find out that my responsibilities are really more like that of a middle-office tech position. Instead of doing research on market inefficiencies, I’m relegated to automating an endless number of reports. My employer knew what the job would entail before I joined and yet portrayed it to be something it’s not. Worst of all, it seems like 80% of the people I consult with say (expressly or implicitly) that I should be glad I got my foot in the door and that this stuff is very common, so it’s nothing to fret about. WTF’s wrong with people?

Perennial Employee

Dear PE,

For whatever reason, which I certainly don’t relate to, there are some people that still desperately want to work in finance as front-office quants. They want it so badly, in fact, that they’re willing to pretend to be doing that while they actually do other stuff. You seem to not be one of those people. Awesome.

My suggestion to you is to get another job, simple as that. You’re not going to change their mind about what your job should be, since they’re clearly perfectly comfortable with lying to people. I mean, once you’ve got another job lined up, there’s no harm in telling them you’re leaving unless you get moved to the position you were promised, but please don’t hold your breath for that to actually happen.

One last thing: look outside finance! There are plenty of other ways to be a nerd.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

How does Mathbabe break down a data problem into manageable steps? I’m a mathematician who has tried a few data mining problems on the side for fun, and I get totally overwhelmed whenever I try to start. If I were solving a math problem, I’d read relevant papers to see what is known and get ideas for techniques, I’d break down my desired result into lemmas and work on them one by one, and I’d have a plan in mind throughout (it might change, of course, but I’d always know why I was doing what I was doing).

But if I’m trying to, say, classify a bunch of labeled feature vectors, I’m at a loss. I experiment and play around with the data, but I feel so random about everything. How do I choose how many hidden units to have in a neural net? How do I choose K in K-nearest neighbor classification? And so on. Some stuff works better than other stuff, but I don’t know how to be systematic. I end up getting discouraged, which is too bad because data problems are awesome and I want to master them.

Any tips for this mathematician on how to solve problems whose solutions aren’t proof-based?

Proof Machine

Dear PM,

Great question! And I’m glad you’re asking that. It’s a sign that you want to do things right, and know why you’ve made decisions. I want you to cultivate that desire.

First, (after separating my out-of-sample data from my in-sample data) I spend a lot of time with smallish samples getting the feel of things through “exploratory data analysis.” This helps make sure the data is clean, gives me the overall distribution and feel for the various data sources, and gives me some idea of the kind of relationships I might expect between the inputs and possibly the target, if there’s a well-defined target.

You’d be surprised how much you learn by doing that.

Next, how do you even choose which algorithm to use, never mind how exactly to tune the hyperparameters of a given algorithm? The answer is that it’s a craft, and over time you gain intuition, but at first you just don’t know and you experiment. Put the science in data science. Try a bunch of different ones and see which works better, and hypothesize on why, and try to test that hypothesis.

Here’s another possibility. Start with synthetic data that is “perfectly set up” for a given algorithm – figure out what that means – and then pretend you don’t know that, and see whether the above testing procedure would give you the correct result. Now add noise to that perfect data set, and see how quickly (i.e. with how much noise) your perfect solution doesn’t seem optimal anymore. That gives you an overall way of thinking about optimizing algorithms and hyperparameters. It’s hard, even with linear regression.

Oh, and buy my book. It should hopefully help.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. when I worked in math, I didn’t break things down into lemmas first. I first tried to answer the question, why is this true? (maybe by starting with small examples) and then only later, in order to explain it on paper, would I break things down into lemmas.

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have a tenure-track job in a “hard-core STEM field”; I’m also a very young looking woman. I have a serious and rewarding research program, I really enjoy teaching at the board, and I hear that I give great seminars.

Yet recently, for the first time, I have been overcome with extreme, physiological, panic when I stand at the front of a room to give a seminar. This is not because I’m worried about the material; I’m not. This is also not stage fright; I have iron nerves about performing.

It is a feeling of panic brought on by watching the room fill up with men, with maybe only 1 or 2 very junior women. I start thinking “what happened to all the other young women who, like me, loved mathematics? At what point were they all removed from the community? When will too much get to be too much for me too?”

This started happening about a year ago and it’s only getting worse. I’m not expecting to change all the weird experiences of being a young woman in my field; I just want to figure out how to deal with my own thoughts as I stand in front of my audience.

Feeling like a fox in a room full of hunting dogs

Dear fox,

This is going to sound trite, but here goes: you are not a statistic, you are an individual person. And although you are a woman person, that doesn’t mean you have to do stuff that other women have done. If things are working for you on a minute-to-minute basis, then that means you can be happy and proud of having set up your life to be fulfilled.

Nobody is asking you to explain why other people do the things they do. We can barely explain why we do the things we do – and then half the time the understanding only comes years later. Just focus on who you are, who you want to be and how you want to spend your time.

I’d also like to mention that, as a woman who left math, I also loved teaching and I loved giving seminars – that was the good stuff! For that matter there were lots of great things about being a professor. And I didn’t leave because I was a woman and felt like it was time to leave – nor did I not leave because I wanted to prove a point about women not leaving. I left because, in my individual life and with my individual goals, it was what I wanted.

So I guess I’m suggesting that you be a bit more self-centered and somewhat less identified with women, at least at those moments, if that is possible and if that helps. If that doesn’t help, consider going to a cognitive therapist who specializes in dealing with panic attacks. Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I feel an eerie compulsion to answer this email. I love the broken grammar and all. What should I do?

Hello,

How are you doing today? My name is Colvin Hostetter. I came across your e-mail under the Graduate Students portal while surfing online for tutorial for my daughter, Debra is a 18 years old girl. She is ready to learn. I would like the lessons to be at your location. Kindly let me know your policy with regard to the fees, cancellations, location and make-up lessons.

Also, get back to me with your area of SPECIALIZATION and any necessary information you think that might help.

The lessons can start by last week of November. Mind you, any break during Thanksgiving and Christmas would be observed respectively.

My best regard,
Mr Colvin.

Professor Has Ignored Silly Ignoble New Game

Dear PHISING,

Really? PHISING? I think you really are a bit kinky in the grammar and spelling rules department.

So this must be a spam email, since it’s talking about an 18-year-old girl who is “ready to learn.” It sounds like soft porn. And it doesn’t describe what she needs to learn – math? physics? German? I’d be not at all surprised to hear someone describe the actual financial bamboozling mechanism that would transpire if you did answer this, although a quick Google search doesn’t uncover it.

My suggestion is to mark this, and any other similar emails, as “spam” so that Google will do the work for us in the future and delete this bullshit.

AP

——

Dear Auntie P,

My wife and I have not used any birth control other than rhythm and/or withdrawal for more than 16 years now (~mid late twenties to early mid forties.) We have not had any unwanted pregnancies through this. We did have one successfully planned pregnancy that corresponded exactly to the month she charted to pinpoint ovulation.

So, are we lucky outliers or is this a much more successful strategy than we were both led to believe in high school sex ed?

Any suggestions for here on out?

Thanks,

Lucky in love

Dear Lucky,

The reason that rhythm might not work is if women have irregular ovulations. If your wife doesn’t, though, then cool (although she may experience that as she approaches menopause).

The reason withdrawal doesn’t work is because men often forget the “withdrawal” part of the plan. I mean, it’s certainly possible to get pregnant with the pre-cum (just ask Alice) but super unlikely.

In other words, you are a special, special man with a very excellent memory.

Here on out: don’t forget to remember the plan! And be aware of irregular cycles!

Aunt Pythia

——

Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

## Aunt Pythia’s advice: the long and boring edition

If you’re feeling anything like Aunt Pythia is feeling, you don’t want to even look at any food that has been peeled, baked, poured into a pie crust, mashed with butter, or stuffed into a turkey. It’s chopped cucumbers and raw apples from here on out, with plentiful brisk walks in the sunshine. Yes or no?

And also, is it just me, or has it been approximately 40 years since Aunt Pythia’s last column? Or is that just measured in “dishes done” years?

Before Aunt Pythia gets down to the advice part of the column, which is particularly long and boring and for which she apologizes, she wants to draw attention to the Black Friday protests that many of her Occupy friends took part in yesterday in Secaucus, New Jersey at Walmart.

It was a national day of Walmart protests, but here in Secaucus we had a large Occupy presence - note my friend Marni, who is holding up a deceased Walmart employee. More pictures are available here.

Now down to business. As you enjoy today’s column (or as you nod your way through it, as the case may be),

please, think of something to ask Aunt Pythia 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,

Some cosmological theories talk about the universe as being a mathematical space, rather than a pile of floating rocks and other real stuff. I always thought that mathematics consisted of rules for writing squiggles on bits of paper that sometimes produced sets of squiggles that corresponded with the real out-there stuff.

Am I a tiny part of the solution to a humungous equation? I’m happy with being made of fundamental particles but this is something else. What’s your take? Are there any practical consequences?

Perplexed

Dear Perplexed,

I’m no philosopher, but as a mathematician I’m here to tell you that mathematics doesn’t describe the universe. It’s at most used as a tool to understand certain parts of the universe, but only at the level of an approximation.

So for example, there’s no such thing as a circle in reality. It’s an idealized shape we use in mathematics that comes in super handy for various reasons, but because actual matter is made up of stuff, there’s never going to be a true circle, except in our brains. You can extend that concept of approximation to other mathematical models of the universe as well, at least as far as I understand it (Peter, please correct me if I’m wrong here!).

As far as each of us being a tiny part of a solution to a humungous equation, it all depends on how you look at it. I’m sure I can set up an equation that would dictate how many children my parents had, and then by construction I’d be in some sense a part of the solution to that. If you’re thinking more metaphysical than that, I can’t help you, and I doubt it would be more meaningful than that, although it might be wrapped up in fancier wrappers.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am mulling reinventing myself (again). I used to be a lawyer, but it was entirely too demanding and inhumane to manage that and a family life. So I downshifted. Now I use the law degree writing for a legal publication. It’s a 40 hour work week, I have awesome benefits, I am able to take my kids (including the special needs one) to all their crap.

There are only two problems with this nirvana: I don’t make a lot and I’m bored off my butt. My spouse is, unfortunately, utterly useless at home and has proven that he (1) will always put work first, period – because he thinks he’s making the world a better place, and (2) won’t sell out and make some money, because that would be evil. Look, it’s a package deal and that’s who he is, apparently.

This leaves me with a conundrum, and I’m getting quite tired of being poor. One needs a tutor and one needs more behavioral therapy, and I’m not sure where that money is going to come from. I can go and take a government counsel job, I believe that I can get one, and make substantially more than I make now. Like, twice as much roughly. The hours will be a little worse, the commute will be a lot worse. All told, I figure I’d lose 2 extra hours a day, at least.

There’s no guarantee I’ll like it, of course, but I know I’m bored with the current job. And it has no room for growth. I wonder if I’m better off trying to take a second job or make money contracting rather than going whole hog and jumping careers again? I’ve been where I am about 3 years.

Considering Aunt Pythia has jumped ship quite a few times with her skill set, I’m curious if she has insight for me.

Proudly OK on Rent, But Otherwise Rarely Excited Daily

Dear POoR, BORED,

First, I appreciate your sign-off, and second, you were seriously bumping up against the length limit but the sign-off got you through.

And I get needing to prioritize your kids, but I’m going to take issue with two things: your hubby and your boredom.

First, your boredom. Not cool. You need to be interested in your own life, and being bored off your butt is seriously not cutting it. Be more selfish than that, and do it for your kids. They need a mom who’s also a role model. Go find a better job, that pays enough for your needs and that interests you.

Second, your husband. Also not cool that he’s “utterly useless at home,” both because you are wasting time resenting him and because you genuinely need his help. And don’t give me that “because he’s saving the world” crap. He’s not helpful because he’s gotten away with not being helpful. It’s a deal you made with him, possibly (probably) without thinking enough about it. Time to renegotiate. Oh, and renegotiating shitty deals that don’t work for you is also a good role modeling opportunity for your kids.

Here’s how I’d work this. Sit your husband down when the two of you have time, on a weekend evening after the kids are asleep, and tell him you’re bored, need a more challenging job, and that will mean he needs to help out with the house and the kids, because chances are your new job will have more commuting time or whatever.

Next, explain how you’ve worked out the schedule for both of you (if you need to), or ask him to help work it out with you so that it all works. Don’t ask him for help like he’s got an option, because you need this, and that means the family needs this. You guys are a team, and teams work together to make things work.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

Two economists have recently posted a paper arguing that Fields Medalists’ productivity decreases after they get their Fields Medal. While this certainly seems plausible psychologically (after all, proving minor theorems might seem anti-climactic after you’ve solved the major open problem in your field), when I looked at this paper, it seemed that the statistics in it were very naive, in that the authors completely ignored any possible post-conditioning; this leads me to believe that the conclusion is quite likely to be wrong. I have two questions:

Are the statistics used in most economics papers this poor, and if so, how can we trust economists to run our economy?

Would it be worth redoing the statistics in this paper to show up these economists, and maybe to defend Fields Medalists against their charges of being lazy?

Burnt-Out Prizewinner

Dear BOP,

First of all, without even reading the paper I’d say we shouldn’t trust economists to run our economy. They have already proved their vested interests are too distracting for such a responsibility.

Second, I scanned the paper, and I’m not very interested in their model but I am kind of interested in their appendix, where they have the following graph:

After all, I want to see the data, and here it is. Look carefully at the comparison group for the Fields Medalists: people who won another big award besides the Fields Medal and have “above-media per-year citations” during the eligibility period.

My question is, why did they include that second part about citations? It’s muddying the waters, for me at least. Did the actual winners also have above-median per-year citations? Are we assuming that the Fields Medal committee uses that as a criterion for eligibility? It’s weird, and I think the data would be cleaner without that stipulation: we’d just be comparing Fields Medalists versus “other” medalists. Now I’m thinking we’re cherry picking. After all, I can imagine that people who get lots of citations are also like to write more papers.

Next, I’d like to see the data on the individual basis or in some way see what kind of error bars we’re talking about here. The fact that there’s a three-year average in the above graph tells me this data is somewhat noisy. Plus the fact that the three-year average is centered on the middle year is weird. All graphs should reflect data known by a certain date.

But finally, I’m willing to ask, who cares? I guess I don’t care about awards in math much, but even if I did, I’m not willing to agree that the whole point of giving out Fields Medals is to “encourage further achievement” on the part of the recipient, even if Fields himself said that. I’ma go with the other reason, which is to get people to compete against each other (yuck).

Whatever, it’s not like you’re going to get a second Fields Medal or something. If you were doing stuff in order to win a Fields Medal, then after getting it, you’d stop, right, and do something else that’s interesting? Makes sense to me.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I agree with your answers to recent question that often enough folks’ criticism of others stems from their own insecurities. Meditating on the fact was making me depressed, until I found an uneaten cupcake in the cupboard, and then thought: do you think that it also works the other way around?

Even if it doesn’t, your site is da bomb! <fingers crossed>.

Mmmm…a cupcake

Dear Mmmm,

First of all, I don’t trust cupcakes in cupboards. At least at my house that signals something very very wrong, that a cupcake made it into a cupboard. Shoulda at most made it onto the counter. Most cupcakes don’t make it out of the shopping bag around here.

Second of all, are you crossing your fingers because you’re hoping to get your question into the column? Or is it because you’re hoping mathbabe.org really is da bomb? Cuz it is, so your hopes have been fully realized.

Next, to your question. By “the other way around,” I’m going to guess you mean the following: when people are insecure about something, they accuse others of having that flaw. The answer is yes, absolutely.

In fact it’s generally true that when someone is sensitized to an issue, even if it’s not one of insecurity, then they see it everywhere, all the time, as if for the first time. There’s a running joke in my family that whenever someone starts a sentence with “Have you noticed lately that…” then what follows that will be a selection bias in exactly that way. So, have you noticed lately that everyone is wearing incredibly awesome flannel shirts? That’s because I got comfort on da mind over here.

Anyhoo, same thing for insecurities. If one is feeling like one’s acne is out of control, one sees other people’s pimples a mile away. If I am ashamed of myself for being overly bossy, then I see overbearing behavior everywhere and I can’t understand how people can stand it. And although we do our best to not accuse people of stuff we’re aware of being sensitized to, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Best,

Aunt Pythia

——

Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia is hung over from excess rabble rousing and karaoke, but she’s determined not to miss another week of her beloved advice column. Aunt Pythia has missed you! As I’m sure you’ve missed her! Please enjoy today’s column, and

please, don’t forget to ask Aunt Pythia a question at the bottom of the page!

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have an older sister. She’s a lovely and good person. Very generous, very friendly. And very assertive, in an oldest-child-in-the-family way.

I love my family, but I often feel depressed and suffocated when I’m around my sister. Is it because I feel she’s constantly giving input on how I could do things differently, and why she’s chosen to do things the way she does as if she has a PhD on the subject, and I often am left doubting my own abilities to make decisions even though I know that in reality I have a pretty good head on my shoulders? Maybe. Is it because of the authority she speaks on any topic, even ones she knows very little about? Is it because she doesn’t seem to entertain the possibility that anyone else could have anything to add in terms of input? Is it because she rarely shows any kind of vulnerability? Is it because she’s so assertive that it often feels like she’s taking up all of the oxygen in the room? Is it because she does all of these things even while, at the same, she is being utterly helpful, generous, and selfless in most other ways? Yeah, maybe that too.

Whatever it is, it hardly seems like a good reason to get depressed or to distance myself from someone who genuinely loves me and whom I love. I get that this is my issue, and the problem is how I feel about myself when I’m around her. I want to get over this. I just don’t know where to start.

Family Stuff

Dear Family Stuff,

To be honest I double- and triple-checked that I don’t have any younger siblings when I read this, because it could be about me. I could totally be that older sister, and I imagine that many people feel this way about me.

But if I’m right, and if your sister is a lot like me, then I don’t think it’s “your issue” to get over. I’m guessing it’s more like a series of signals that she’s giving out that are not hitting the intended targets. And if I’m right, she actually does want you to add stuff, but she expects you to jump right into the ring and not need an invitation.

So, when she gives advice, think of her words as her unedited thoughts, and do with those thoughts what you may. You can test this theory by every now and then pointing out, “I tried that already, it didn’t work” and see what she says. If she’s like, “Oh cool, how about trying this?” then you know she’s just taking stabs.

And, when she has an opinion on everything, maybe she’s just trying to engage in a provocative conversation and wants to be challenged. I do that all the time (duh). So next time she says something that sounds uninformed, say something like, “Hey that sounds wrong to me – should we check the facts?” and see how she reacts. She might be psyched for the challenge and for the chance to learn something interesting.

As for your sister showing no vulnerability. The funny thing about family is, we are our most vulnerable with our family, and yet we are also very comfortable with them, because we know them so well. You might be surprised by how vulnerable she really is. At the same time, you might not want to test this one, because it’s usually a negative experience to expose vulnerability in someone else. In any case my advice here is to not assume an entire lack of vulnerability around family, even if it looks like that.

Last piece of advice: go read my recent post called “Cathy’s Wager.” It’s about how to react when people are treating you not-so-nicely. I think it’s relevant here, because the overall point is that it’s not about you. Your sister is who she is and she’s very likely not doing all this stuff in order to make you feel stifled and depressed. She’s a know-it-all loudmouth, true, but the sooner you can either get on her wavelength (see above tips) or roll your eyes and love her in spite of her pushy know-it-all ways the better for you and for her. Don’t take it personally.

Either that or just never see her again. That’s totally fine too, honestly. I don’t agree that you have to hang out with family, unless possibly if they’re dying or in need.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia

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Aunt Pythia,

What ever happened to the proof of the ABC conjecture by Mochizuki that you talked about a year ago?

Thanks,
Curious

Curious,

I unfortunately missed him when he came to Columbia, but Brian Conrad recently came and updated the math community on the status of the alleged proof. I believe the bottomline was that it has not been confirmed by anyone. So, I’d say this means it’s not a proof.

AP

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

This is a longtime worry of mine. Since you are a master of both abstract as well as the quantitative, let me query you regarding the deep connection that seems to exist between the two. To put it simply, the question is, “Does Size Matter?” More precisely, does Size influence tender feelings of the heart?

Sizeable Confusion

Dear SC,

I’d guess about as much as anything else physical, like boob size or leg length. In other words it might be a pretty big deal initially, as in during the first few minutes, but then when real love sets in it’s a total non-issue.

AP

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

Many government officials testified that there is no way for them to tell how many people signed up for Obamacare. Can extracting the data from the website be that complicated? I am worried and lost.

Dear Worried,

Well many people have been busy counting this stuff since you submitted that question, and the final number for the first day of Obamacare seems to be 6. Given how small that number is, I’m going to assume it wasn’t that hard to count, or at least approximate at “0″. In other words, it might have been a political decision to repress the actual number.

On the other hand, engineering large-scale systems is actually pretty complicated, and it might not make sense to have a single repository to put all the enrollment figures – who knows, and I didn’t design this system, so I don’t – so I can imagine that it was actually non-trivial to figure out the answer to this question.

By the way, I’m planning to write some posts on how we are increasingly seeing pure engineering issues become political issues. There’s Knight Capital’s trading mistakes, then there’s Obamacare. Those are just two, but my theory is that they are just the beginning of a very long list. The nerds are taking over, in other words, or at least their mistakes are.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I sent you a question a few weeks back and you didn’t answer it (which is completely fine). What is your criteria for answering a question or not? Maybe your answer might help me rewrite my question in a way that suits you better.

Socially Awkward Dude

Here’s the thing. I’m pretty desperate over here, what with a pretty short list of questions, and a stubborn refusal on my part to make up fake questions (although I do accept other people’s fake questions!). So there had to be something about your question that didn’t sit well with me. Here are some possibilities as to why:

1. The question was something I couldn’t answer, because it required expertise I don’t have.
2. The question was really long and not easily edited down to something shortish.
3. The question wasn’t really a question, just a rambling speech.
4. The question was spam.
5. The question was verbally abusive towards me.
6. The question struck me as disingenuous in some way.
7. The question is a lot like other questions I’ve already answered (note to the 40 people asking me how to become a data scientist: read my book called Doing Data Science!)

I have no idea which question was yours, but if you’d care to resubmit, making sure it’s to the point, has a specific and earnest question, and is about something I have knowledge about, then I’m guessing it will get through.

I hope that helps!

Auntie P

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a late-20′s data scientist (working at a large non-tech company) about to apply for Ph.D. programs in machine learning. My reason for doing this is two-fold. One, I enjoy research and feel that I can contribute to humanity through scholarship, even if the contribution may be small. Two, I’ve grown disillusioned with working in a corporate environment – it seems like one needs to be more of a politician than a genuinely nice and high-performing individual to be recognized. But I realize this is partly due to the size of my organization (are start-ups any different?).

However, I’ve heard people tell me that academia is no different. Given the publish-or-perish paradigm, people are more interested in how many citations they have than they are about truly advancing human knowledge (for example, this was a depressing read).

You transitioned from academia into industry. Do you have any advice for someone who’s trying to make the opposite transition?

Naively Bayesian

Dear NB,

First of all, start-ups are sometimes different, although they work you really hard and often expect you to sleep under your desk. This might not work for you, but it might be worth it if you get to have influence. Also, I’d suggest going with a very small start-up: as soon as there are like 60 people, your potential influence typically gets pretty miniscule.

Second, my motto is “You never get rid of your problems, you just get a new set of problems.” So it’s more a question of which kinds of problems suit your personality than anything else.

But there’s one thing I can assure you: there’s politics everywhere. You’re not getting away from that, so if you’re really allergic to politics, I suggest you find a place where you can safely ignore that stuff, like maybe in a cave in the woods.

But seriously, I’d suggest you talk to a lot of people and see what kind of problems are there, without exaggerating them too much (I feel like that link is too aggressive for example, although there are grains of truth in it). And most importantly, try to find something to do that actually interests you in an intellectual way so you can become absorbed in your own sense of curiosity and shut out the real world at least once a day. Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia is well-slept and excited to be here to answer your wonderful and thoughtful ethical conundrums. Please do comment on my answers, if you disagree but especially if you agree wholeheartedly and want me to keep up the good work. Love that kind of encouraging comment.

And please, don’t forget to ask me a question at the bottom of the page!

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

What is your text editor of choice? The most popular ones, the ones in which I know die-hard fans, are for Emacs, Vi/Vim, and Sublime. I am personally an Emacs user, but I haven’t given any other editors a chance, to be honest. Which do you prefer to use, and why?

Text Editor

Dear TE,

I use emacs mostly, and xemacs when it’s available. It’s easy, it “knows” about python and other languages, and the drop-down menu is easier than remembering keystroke commands. I’ve been known to use an IDE or two depending on codebase context. For me it’s all about ease of use and, since I’ve never been a professional engineer and so I’ve never spent a large majority of my time with source code, vim doesn’t attract me, even though everything is keystroke and you never need to use your mouse.

As an aside, I’d like to argue this point, because it’s often shrouded in weird macho crap: why not use your mouse? Does it really waste that much time? I honestly have never been prevented from coding efficiently because my arm is too tired from moving from the keyboard to the mouse and back. Is the goal really to be able to stay in the exact same position for as long as possible? I’m the kind of person that is too fidgety for such ideas. I take the “stand up and walk around every 20 minutes” rule seriously, at least before 4pm, when I become a zombie.

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

What are your thoughts on the famous (infamous?) two-daughter problem? I have three PhDs who give different answers all of which appear to be statistically correct. Modinow says the answer is 1/2. The chair of the stats department at local university says the answer is 3/7, and a chap at Fl Coastal College has yet a 3rd answer which I have lost.

How can this be?

Tombs

Dear Tombs,

OK I’m pretty sure there’s only one answer to this if it’s stated precisely. So let’s try to do that. Here’s the question:

Suppose I have two children. One of them is a girl who was born on a Friday. What are the chances of both children being girls?

Now I’m a big fan of making things incredibly easy and visual. So what I’m going to do here is identify the fact that, as far as children go, there are two attributes of interest in this question, namely gender and day of birth. I will assume that all options are equally likely and that they are independent from each other as well as between kids, and in my first iteration I’ll draw up a list of equally likely bins for a given child, namely of either gender and of any day born. That’s 14 equally likely bins for a given single child, and that means they happen with probability 1/14.

Now, for the second iteration, let’s talk about having two kids. You have a 2-dimensional array of bins, which you arrange to be 14-by-14, and you assume that any of those 14*14 = 196 bins is a priori equally likely.

Label the bins with ordered pairs (gender, day). The x-axis is first kid, y-axis is 2nd kid. Each bin equally likely.

If you label the first bin as “(Female, Friday)” and the second bin as “(Female, Saturday)” and so on, you realize that the condition that “one of the two kids is a girl who was born on Friday” means that we already know we are working in the context where we are either in the left-most column or the bottom row. Here’s my awesome rendition of this area:

The pink parts show where there’s a girl born on a Friday among the two children.

Specifically, the left bottom corner is the case where there are two girls, both born on Friday. The one to the right and above that corner refers to the case where there are two girls, one born on Friday and one born on Saturday. The stuff on the right and in the upper part of the column refers to the case where there’s a Friday girl and a boy.

Altogether we have 13 pink bins with two girls and 14 pink bins of a boy and a girl. So the overall chances of two girls, given one Friday girl, is 13/27.

I hope that’s convincing!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Auntie P,

What do you think about topological data analysis (some info here). Should we trust people who can’t tell the difference between their rear end and a coffee cup because the two are topologically equivalent?

Topological Fear

Dear TF,

Geez I don’t know about you but my rear end is not topologically equivalent to my coffee cups. You either need to go to a doctor or buy some coffee cups that don’t leak.

So, I don’t know very much about this stuff, but I do think it’s potentially interesting, and it’s maybe close to an idea I’ve had for a while now but for which I haven’t found a practical use. Yet.

The idea I have had, if it’s close to this idea, and I think from short conversations with people that it is, is that if you draw a bunch of scatter plots of, say, two attributes x1 and x2 and an outcome y (so you need numerical data for this), then you’ll notice in the resulting 3-dimensional blob of points some interesting topological properties. Namely, there seem to be pretty well-defined boundaries, and those boundaries might have certain kinds of curves, and there may possibly even be well-defined holes in the blob, at least if you “fatten up” the points (sufficiently but not more than necessary) and then take the union of all of the resulting spheres to be some kind of 3-d manifold. You can then play with the relationship between, say, the radius of these fattened points and the topological properties of the resulting blob.

Anyhoo, the idea could be that, if you see x1 and x2 then you can exclude a y that lives in a hole, or rather where point (x1, x2, y) would live in a hole. This is more than most kinds of modern models can do for you, but even so I’ve never seen this actually come in handy.

I hope that helps, and please do see a doctor!

Auntie P

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

This is a reaction to a previous post (maybe Oct 12?) where you said the following:

My kids, to be clear, hate team sports and suck at them, like good nerds.

Now, as a nerd whose parents never let play team sports growing up and now plays one in college (a “nerd” sport, but still…), I have a question for you: Why do “good nerds” have to hate sports and/or suck at them? What classifies a “good nerd”? Does this generalize to other things that nerds are stereotypically bad at, like sex lives? Is there another category that should be created for nerdy type people that are also jocky-er, like a nerock or a jord?

With Love,

Great question, and you’re not the only nerd that called me out on my outrageous discrimination. I wasn’t being fair to my nerock and jord friends, and that ‘aint cool. Although, statistically I believe I still have a point, there’s no reason to limit people in arbitrary ways like that, and it’s fundamentally un-nerdy of me to do so.

For all you nerocks and jords out there: you go, girls! and boys!

But just for the record, nerds are categorically excellent at sex. We all know that. Say yes.

Love,

Aunt Pythia

——

Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia lovers! Please rest assured that Aunt Pythia took a much-needed one week rest but is now back and is bigger and better than before!

What?!           YES!!!

And please, don’t forget to ask me a question at the bottom of the page!

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have been dating a guy for 6 months, and realized that I have been suffering due to his “too direct” way of communicating, a.k.a. criticizing me too much.

Everything is bad, he said my skin will look better if I exfoliate more, he said the shoes I wear looked too cheap on me, or that I should use different deodorant because the one I am using right now is “failing”, and the worse, he said I have bad breath.

I understand that I should not take criticism too personal, and it reminds me that I have many things to improve, but he made me feel horrible and I’m losing confidence.

I really want to break up with him because I don’t think he loves me, but he keeps on saying that he does, and despite all those critics, he stays in this relationship with me. What should I do?

A few things.

First, what you’ve described is a classic case of someone (namely, a jerk) projecting their insecurities onto someone else (namely, you). He does it through accusations, and as a good friend explained to me, people accuse you of the thing they are guilty of. So next time he accuses you of having bad breath, realize it is he who is sensitive to his breath. So your first task is to flip those statements around every time they come out of his mouth.

Next, I know it’s easier said than done, but I want you to work on flipping more than just his words. I want you to start realizing that when you say “he stays in this relationship with me” it means that it’s up to him, whereas it’s really just as much up to you. In other words, you’ve given him all the power to decide whether this relationship is going to continue. You didn’t even tell me if you love him, only that he loves you (or at least claims to), which is another indication that you feel powerless and your emotions are irrelevant. So they second task I’d like you to try is to flip that mindset around and realize that, given how insecure and mean he is, he’s lucky you haven’t broken up with him. You have the power to end this, even if you haven’t exerted it yet.

Finally, I want you to address this stuff with him (if you do indeed love him – otherwise skip to last four words of this paragraph). Once you’ve learned to recognize his projections for insecure and mean barbs, and once you realize the power you have in that relationship, I’d like you to tell him that you have standards for a high quality of life, and this treatment is not meeting those standards, so he needs to stop. And if he can’t, then break up with him.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Aunt Pythia,

If I drink quickly enough and pee slowly enough simultaneously, do you think I could pee forever?

Aspiring Guinness

Dear AG,

AP

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

How do you find the time to work as a data scientist, be a mom, write daily blog posts, organize Occupy/hacker events and still maintain a sense of humor? I’ve got one job, one hobby, no kids and can do little more than collapse on my day off. I don’t even have a TV.

What’s your secret? Are you one of those amazing people who only needs four hours of sleep per night?

More energy hopeful

Dear More,

I’ve been asked this question before and, although I will tell you my “secrets”, I’m guessing you are underplaying all the stuff you actually do. To convince yourself of that, think about how your best friend would describe you, not how you did above. Just sayin’. OK here goes.

First of all, I’m a huge sleep hog. I think that’s one of my secrets, which is that I don’t deny myself sleep. I often fall asleep before my kids, who are themselves sleep hogs and go to bed at 9:30 [Update: after reading this my oldest son insists that he is not a sleep hog and that the 9:30 bedtime is mandated by the dictator who is his mother]. I also take naps whenever I can. Love naps.

I generally think people shortchange their own sleep thinking it will make them more efficient, when in fact it does the opposite. A great night’s sleep sees me jumping out of bed at 6am to blog some point that got me all in a huff the day before. I can’t wait! I’m excited to do it!

The second thing I want to mention is that I’m a scrupulous planner, and I have enormously high (extremely personal) standards for my activities. I say “no” almost all the time to almost everything, so I can spend more time doing stuff I love like watching Star Trek: Deep Space 9 with my kids and taking naps. That means I’m a persona non grata when it comes to, say, the PTA, where my policy is that if my husband won’t do it, neither will I (and he basically won’t do anything).

Third, what with all the reinventing I’ve done over the years, I don’t hover needlessly over my own decisions. I write a blog post, then publish it. I give myself 1.5 times as long to prepare a talk as the talk will last, a trick I learned from my teaching experience. If things suck, I take it in stride, make a mental note to myself, and move on. In other words, I’m ruthlessly efficient and my skin is thick. It means I’m not a stickler for details but I get through more stuff than otherwise.

Finally, I really like and trust the people I meet and work with. It sometimes burns me but then again almost always works out, and I’d recommend it overall, especially if paired with a natural or learned resilience to disappointments, which gets easier when you have a fantastic support system. That means I’m always psyched to work on the next project with other people and that energy feeds me and gets me going.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dearest Aunt Pythia,

I’m a young math professor, and, as you know is typical, this career entails for me a certain level of travel to conferences. Lately, I’ve realized that the colleagues that I meet regularly at conferences are a sad bunch of life cripples. Totally lacking in beneficial social graces and unable to hold even just a slightly decent conversation of non-trivial length (especially one not involving mathematics), I feel continually shocked when around them, particularly by the unsubtle, autistic fashion in which they interrogate me about my personal life, professional activities, collaborations, etc.

Could you suggest any techniques for coping with interactions with them? How can I survive, or even have a little fun in this bad party I’m stuck in? Also, does Aunt Pythia have any ideas for minimizing the anxiety that I’m struck with prior to attending a conference?

Keep up the frank work,
Pitiable In The Suburbs

Dear Pitiable,

I’m afraid I’m going to have to use my previous advice against you. You are accusing these guys of all sorts of things that you yourself are guilty of. In particular, you don’t sound like someone overbrimming with social graces when you call people “cripples”.

And when I pair your nasty and dismissive tone with the acknowledged anxiety you experience before going to a conference, I am forced to conclude that you are projecting anxiety and insecurity onto these nerds.

Look, I’ve been to a LOT of conferences, and I agree that there are lots of awkward moments. And yes, there are lots of people that are on the autism spectrum in mathematics. But those people are still really wonderful in general and I have always found a way to enjoy myself with great company. In fact I cannot remember a conference I went to that I didn’t end up enjoying once I sought out the people with whom I click. Even at Oberwolfach, the most macho of all places, I managed to find some bridge partners and beer.

My advice to you: spend a lot of time willfully separating your anxiety from other people’s flaws, and set yourself the task to find something beautiful, or at least amusing, in every person you meet at your next conference. And take it from me, there are assholes in math, but they are typically pretty minor league compared to, say, the finance assholes or the Silicon Valley assholes.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia has a 5-year-old’s birthday party to manage this morning, so she’s going to be more to the point, less philosophical, and overall slightly less fun and sexy than usual, for which she apologizes.

On second thought, they say less is more, so let’s assume it’s just as sexy if not more sexy.

Apology rescinded.

And, please, Aunt Pythia readers: I’ve been plowing through questions faster than I’ve been receiving them, so please

ask me a question at the bottom of the page!

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

Seeing as Halloween is coming up soon, I was just thinking about what to dress up as (well, looking online at pictures of other people’s ridonculous costumes). In the middle of my search, my brother walked into the room. Thinking that he may be of some help, I asked him what I should dress up as. He answered that I should just go as myself; it’ll be the scariest costume guaranteed.

How should I respond?

Dear SFP,

I think your brother is right, and you should acknowledge that.

Let’s face it, our society is filled with phonies getting up every morning and putting on costumes for work to hide their true inner selves. Being an authentic human being is incredibly intimidating to such people, and they might be terrified when they see you.

Partly this is because it’s just so incredibly rare to see someone be an unqualified human being that the “unknown” aspect is scary, and partly because they’re worried that, if you’re doing it, then they might be expected to do it too. Persevere though, and be brave. It’s worthwhile in spite of such reactions.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

Since I had my first baby (a four month old little boy), my mother has starting buying him gifts frequently. Most of these are completely unnecessary, or superfluous, or more expensive than what we need or I would consider affordable.

I don’t want them and it stresses me out because I don’t think my mother can afford them either. She is completely innumerate. In fact, she doesn’t even seem to comprehend large numbers at all. 100 and 1000 and 10000 all mean the same thing to her.

Instead of budgeting with numbers, she tries to balance out a sense of deprivation (so she’ll try to balance out spending \$100 on luxuries by buying cheap bread that tastes bad for a month, even though that doesn’t work at all).

Even though she is in her sixties, she constantly has a credit card debt, has kept the same mortgage for the last twenty years, and has minimal retirement savings. I wish she would stop buying us baby clothes from expensive department stores and save it instead. I’ve tried returning them and giving her the money back, and asking her not to buy any more, but often I can only get store credit. In any case she won’t take the money back, and then a few weeks later she’ll come over with a new set of clothes that are already almost too small for him.

Sometimes I lie awake at night stressing about it. I feel powerless to stop her but when she gets too old to work I think it will become my problem as well and I unfortunately don’t earn very much money. What should I do?

Anxious

Dear Anxious,

It’s a huge problem, and your mom is obviously not the only person in that situation. In fact I expect to hear more and more about retirees in huge debt problems in the next few years. Of course some retirees have saved a bunch of money, but not all of them to be sure.

My advice, and this is just on first reflection and I’d invite other readers to give their input, is to stay far away from your mom’s money, legally speaking. She is likely not going to accept your advice, and although it’s probably worth suggesting she go to talk to a non-profit community finance class on budgeting like at a local credit union, I don’t expect this will actually make her instantaneously frugal.

Here’s what I wouldn’t do if I were you: pay off her debts. There would just be more where those came from. When she is unable to pay her debts, by all means help her connect with a lawyer to declare bankruptcy, and help her cope with debt collectors (read the Debt Resistors Operations Manual to learn more about her rights and theirs).

Here’s another thing I wouldn’t do: in any way shape or form become a co-signatory on anything with her. Then you will be liable for her debts.

In the best of worlds, your mom will run up pretty big debts, the credit card companies will figure out she’s never going to pay back those debts, she will declare bankruptcy, and then nobody will give her any more credit. To be sure you will want to make sure she always has food and a place to live and medicine, but think of that as a separate issue from her piling-up debts, which is in the end the problem of the banks that gave her credit cards she couldn’t be trusted with.

Good luck, and enjoy motherhood!

Aunt Pythia

——

Hi Auntie P,

Thank you for answering my “sock” question, but my apologies for not phrasing it properly, and so misleading you as to my intention. Perhaps you will permit me to resubmit it, and – having seen your “not enough sex” comment on 21st – I will try to put some of that into it, instead of boring old socks.

Let’s imagine that 44 men and 116 women sign up for a dating evening. Each is given a number, and they are drawn at random – the organizer forgetting to ask any basic questions like “sexual orientation?” or to put the men’s numbers in one pot and the women’s in another. As the numbers are drawn out, the first person is paired with the second, the third with the fourth, etc.

So my question is this: how many M/M pairings will there be? Alternatively, what are the chances of getting exactly n such couples?

Socks Maniac

Dear Socks Maniac,

I don’t usually do this, but I’m gonna steal a commenter’s answer whole hog from that post, which I guess you didn’t see. This is from Michael Kleber, whom I’ve know approximately 20 years, and I’ve adjusted it to be sexy like I know we want it:

I think Socks Maniac’s drawer contains lots of individual socks people which get paired up blindfolded. That gives you X all-black male pairs, Y all-white female pairs, and Z mixed black-white male-female ones, and the question is the probability that X is exactly 10.

This can also be answered by counting, but it’s a little uglier. There are 160-choose-44 orders in which you can pull the socks out of the drawer blindfolded people out of the dungeon, of course. To count the number of ways to get exactly X/Y/Z black/white/male/female/mixed pairs, you can think of lining up 80 slots dungeon lairs and picking X of them to get two black socks blindfolded men, Y of the remaining 80-X to get two white ones blindfolded women — and then for the remaining Z slots dungeon lairs you need to pick whether a black or a white sock man or woman was pulled out first, so that’s another 2^Z choices to worry about. So 80-choose-X * (80-X)-choose-Y * 2^Z.

Since Socks Maniac told us X=10, that accounts for 20 of the 44 black socks blindfolded men, leaving 24 black socks blindfolded men paired with 24 white ones blindfolded women (so Z=24), and the other 92 white socks blindfolded women paired up into Y=46 all-white women-on-women pairs. So the number of ways to get exactly 10 all-black male pairs is (80 choose 10) * (70 choose 46) * 2^24. Dividing by the 160-choose-44 to pull socks out of the drawer in the first place, and Wolfram Alpha says you get around 0.01854, or a little under a 2% chance.

Hmm, I see I can’t post links, or even mention the Wolfram Alpha web site by name, without sounding like spam. But anyway, it will happily evaluate

((80 choose 10) * (70 choose 46) * 2^24) / (160 choose 44).

Thanks, Michael!

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

From reading your blog/column, you sound like an outgoing, extroverted type. So maybe you can give a few pointers to we introverts: what are some good ways to start conversations with strangers? I tend to do OK once I’m actually talking to somebody, but I always feel awkward when trying to initiate contact with other people.

I’m single and I don’t have a ton of friends, so this seems like a useful skill to develop.

I’m Nervous To Join

Dear INTJ,

I think the key is to project a friendliness and openness to the stranger you are talking to, and if it turns out you’re wrong and the person is unfriendly or closed off, then not taking it personally.

So for example, when I see people knitting awesome stuff on the subway, I am pretty much always going to pipe up and tell them how beautiful that piece is. About 65% of the time this leads to an excited conversation about how awesome and useless knitting skills are, and sometimes even leads to the discovery of a new yarn shop or sale or website for one of us. But the rest of the time the person has no interest in talking, and I just walk away. I don’t feel bad for being friendly and wanting to connect with someone, because that is frankly what humans do and it’s not something to be ashamed of.

Note one thing: there was a “reason” for me to talk in the above scenario, and that’s key. It doesn’t make sense to walk up to someone with absolutely no cause and strike up a conversation. Having said that, the reason doesn’t have to be all that good, especially if there’s alcohol involved. It could be as simple as, “I love your shirt!!”, although that’s an opener for truly extroverted people.

One last thing. The more confident you are that most people are friendly and open, the higher your chances are of making a connection, so that leaves you with a bit of a tough feedback loop to get into. I suggest having an extroverted wingwoman or wingman the first few times to show you some ropes and to demonstrate how fun it is to be friendly. And good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Hello and good morning, dear Aunt Pythia readers. Aunt Pythia is feeling bright-eyed and bushy tailed this morning and can’t wait to dig into the juicy questions and ethical dilemmas she is sure are awaiting her in her beloved and glamorous google spreadsheet.

Aunt Pythia has taken a few minutes today already to count her blessings, and high among them are the chance to interact with you kind people through this blog and particularly this Saturday morning column. Thank you all! Please feel generous for being here, you are appreciated!

ask a question at the bottom of the page!!

By the way, if you want more, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.

——

Dear Auntie,

1. Do body parts that are not for public purview (read “genitals”) show greater physical diversity because they have not been acted upon by marketing and evolution?

2. Does the use of wigs by Orthodox Jewish women lead to baldness, as they don’t have to demonstrate good hair and so theirs is kind of …meh? I have two data points; albeit from the same family.

No disrespect to genitals or Orthodox Jews intended.

Sexual Evolution Xpounded

Dear SEX,

First of all, I’m in a new phase where I am really into using the phrase “particulars”. So I’m really glad you asked this question, since it gives me tremendous opportunity in that regard. I’m no expert in particulars, of course, but I’ll talk about particulars anyway, since you asked.

First, let’s think about whether particulars have escaped evolution untouched: for sure not, but it has presumably been more about procreation probabilities and not dying in childbirth than about beauty per se.

Here’s my argument along those lines, specifically when it comes to women’s particulars and the issue of marketing standardization: my impression is that no man has ever gotten that close to sex and then said, “whoa, your vagina has a slightly peculiar shape and/or positioning relative to your clitoris. Maybe we should not procreate after all!!”

I mean, it may have happened but I haven’t heard about it. Tell me if you have evidence to the contrary.

That’s not to say there’s no beauty there in something that is varied and idiosyncratic, to be sure. And things might be slightly different for men in this regard, since let’s face it, men’s particular particulars are more obvious pieces of apparatus and therefore more easily scrutinized.

As for baldness and wigs: no freaking clue, but I do have something to say about wigs in general, which is that there are a TON of wigs out there if you know how to spot them. In fact if you go onto the NY subway and take a look around, you’ll see that a good portion of rush hour commuting women are wearing wigs, and I don’t think it’s because New Yorkers are more likely to be bald. It’s just a big thing, particularly for Jewish and for African-American women. Bigger than you might think, and essentially never discussed, which always piques my interest.

Hope that helps,

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

Here is my Career dilemma. I am what you would consider an “Engineer” in the Analytics industry. I have had a good career in building Analytics Products aimed at analyzing data and finally implementing some ‘algorithms’ after enough study to take the human out of the process (one example is a routing algorithm that considers 10-15 price, quality and other factors).

Lately, I feel less excited about ‘normal’ analytics projects (because initial study is smaller and rest is all about creating pipelines to setup algorithms to work autonomously). Instead the new ‘Data Science’ field seems more interesting, fun and challenging. I had a good math background, but that was a decade ago…ideally, I would be part of a Data Science team and learn in the process, but as soon as I say I am not a math major, nobody takes me seriously.

I am relearning some of my math skills but I can hardly refresh years of algebra, calculus and operations research skills that easily.

I am NOT dreaming of being the math nerd in a Data Science team but I cannot figure out if Data Science teams need people like me, who have years of Decision Science + Data Processing background. Yes building 1 model does not make someone a Data Scientist, on the other hand writing a couple of python mapreduce jobs or a few SQL queries does not make someone a Data Architect either.

I apply for jobs, get no response and get frustrated and stop looking…and then repeat that after few weeks. I am almost at the point of giving up and going back to Analytics + Data Architecture field. Do you think Data Science teams would welcome people who have more traditional Data background?

Dear Confused,

A couple of things. First, my new book with Rachel Schutt is coming out in a week and a half and is ideal for someone like you. Get it, read it, and build a few of the things discussed in it with publicly available data so you have a portfolio of projects.

Next, it’s hard to get hired as a data science person with your background, even with projects under your belt. So try to get a job as an engineer in a data-driven business, and worm your way into the data group. Tell them that is your intention, and that you are willing to prove your mad data skillz. I’d be surprised if someone didn’t pick you up under such conditions.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Aunt Pythia,

I have, belatedly, come in contact with the “Youth Sports Industrial Complex” and the insane, existential battle parents wage for their children’s future through travel soccer and the like.

Literally, people seem to think that their kid will get into Harvard on the strength of their parents’ SERIOUS COMMITMENT to youth sports. Winning at all costs seems to be the one and only goal.

The thing is, my kid could be very competitive at this particular sport – if we were to join one of the competitive clubs and hand our souls over to the dark side. I don’t expect to get a scholarship or something, frankly that’s nuts.

Am I a looney for suggesting to my kids that playing well and having fun – and exhibiting excellent sportsmanship – are the goal if they never seem to beat the hyper-aggressive kids? Am I setting them up for a life as outcasts if we reject this ethos? As a mom, what do you think?

Maximize, Or Maintain?

Dear MOM,

What a fucking great question, thank you for asking it.

As a mom, I am definitely on the radical fringe when it comes to this. Specifically, I have taken my kids out of all grown-up organized activities, mostly at their request (but secretly because I think that shit is nuts). That means no sports, no nothing (they do student-organized stuff sometimes). They are expected to exercise but they get to choose how, and they are expected to do interesting stuff – so not play video games after school – but it’s up to them what to do.

Because for my family, it’s not just offensive to think that “winning is the goal” at all times. It’s even offensive to think that adults should define the goal for growing children in their free time.

[Rant to those people: What's wrong with you people, isn't it enough that these kids will probably have to live by other people's rules when they're working in jobs later? Why do we have to start that crap so soon?]

This stance makes it easy for me to never have to deal with the question you’re currently dealing with, namely having a kid who likes a team sport and is good at it, and how to think about the rest of the lunatics. My kids, to be clear, hate team sports and suck at them, like good nerds.

My advice is to be consistently sane and give them absolute agency on these decisions. Be utterly honest about what you think of the attitude displayed by the other kids, and ask your kid what they want considering the dire conditions. They might want to do it anyway, and they will definitely benefit from having a sane person to look to when emotions and goals get distorted and out of hand. Most importantly, if they decide to quit the team, let them.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

With an electrical engineering background but no research experience, I want to study mathematics. I am quite certain that I want to be in research. Without an undergraduate background in mathematics (though I’ve take few applied mathematics courses), what’s the best way to move forward? I don’t know what exactly would end up being the outcome – I would like it to be either in cognitive sciences or mathematical physics/geology. It’s rather broad, because I can’t tell unless I know more. Should I take a year out and preparing for something, get another bachelors (which I dread, I don’t want to do the 4 year university) or …?

Slowkill

Dear Slowkill,

Pardon me for saying it, but WTF?? How would you know you want to do math research if you don’t have experience in math? That makes no sense, because it means you want to devote yourself to something you don’t understand at all and have no experience in. It really has nothing to do with math at all, unless you are assuming that stories you heard about living the math life are true. An I’m here to tell you, they’re not. If Good Will Hunting were to be believed, all math professors have personal secretaries scurrying around getting them coffee – NOT!!

My advice is to think about what it is you really want to do – or to escape. I’m sensing more escapism than desire in your words. Go see Gravity, it’s supposed to be awesome and totally escapist.

Good luck,

Auntie P

——

Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Sorry for the lateness of this column. Aunt Pythia slept in this morning and then went for a beautiful bike ride in Central Park. It’s perfect biking weather: somewhat chilly and cloudy, so the sun doesn’t get in your eyes and you don’t get overheated. You guys gotta try it!

However, Aunt Pythia didn’t forget you guys and she wants you to enjoy today’s column and of course she urges you as always to:

ask a question at the bottom of the page!!

By the way, if you want more, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

Why is it that in this country we can accept that a lobbyist is a valid job description and a valid job but we can’t accept a sex worker?

The profession is legal in Europe, why not the US?

Short and Sweet

Deat S&S,

I wasn’t sure whether, after that first sentence, you wanted lobbyists banned or sex workers made legal. To tell you the truth I coulda gone either way.

So yes, I agree, it’s interesting to think about A) what the hold-up is on legalizing sex work and B) what the pros and cons are of sex-work being legal.

As for the politics, after writing this post about the GOP mindset I’m really not surprised that we haven’t gotten consensus.

As for the pros and cons, I’ve thought about this before, and since I don’t have the actual data I am going on these assumptions I’ve gathered from various reading on the topic, which would all have to be verified:

• Protecting sex workers makes the profession safer for the workers. It means, for example, that they can call the cops if the clients misbehave, not to mention demand things like health insurance and regular HIV tests like porn industry actors.
• It also has economic effects. For example, legalized sex workers probably makes buying sex cheaper (and safer), as well as not-quite-sex stuff like topless bars and lap dances.
• So, in particular, there are plenty of current U.S. establishments that would lose money if sex-working became legalized, specifically places that have super expensive legal almost-sex things and possibly even more expensive illegal sex things for sale. Of course if they moved quickly they could capture the new market.
• Also, keep in mind that, although safer when legal, sex-work is still dangerous. And if it were more widespread it would affect more people, meaning it might be a net negative thing to do. Kind of like how alcohol is more harmful than heroin because it’s so widely used.

Going back to the original question, how about we just outlaw lobbyists?

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

We know you live in New York. But what are your favorite cities or places that you’ve visited?

Curious

Dear Curious,

There are two kinds of traveling for me: with my kids and alone or with other grownups. When I travel with my kids, I basically just spend time with them. But when I travel alone or with other grown-ups, I do it to meet the people living in that place. I am not visiting to see historical things or to view what that culture’s elite considers its finest works.

I don’t like museums or monuments or historical sites, I never have. I like talking to the people currently living somewhere, and I like exploring how they actually live day to day. I’d rather see their markets than their art. Partly this is because I don’t get art but mostly it’s because I think it’s fascinating to see the differences in average people’s lives and how that informs their mindset. I walk around for hours in their cities and intentionally fall into random conversations at the shop or at lunch or at coffee or at a live music performance. That’s a perfect day for me.

Since everyone shops, and everyone eats, and most everyone talks to people when they do this, I’m pretty neutral to exactly where I go. I always find something fascinating about any place I visit, be it Vermont or Prague.

The only place I’ve ever gone where I found the surroundings more interesting than the people is on my honeymoon, when we went to Alaska, and I got really into geology. And the most fascinating and engaging people I ever met were in Accra, Ghana.

One last thing: I love traveling and I would do way more of it if I didn’t have 3 kids. In fact that’s one thing I am truly jealous of for people with no kids, that they get to travel so much. Enjoy that!

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m from Europe. There are some fairly strong cultural differences between countries, but also some common trends. One is anti-US bashing (e.g. NSA stuff, Iraq fiasco, guns and abortion laws…). To the point that I know some academics who actually refuse to travel to the US.

And yet, I’ve been there a couple times and am well aware that there’s a sizable liberal community, especially on the coasts, and some places like the Boston area or the Silicon Valley seem quite attractive to me.

So to my question: what advice would you give to a hesitant European (who has no family issues yet, but not a large wallet either)? Land an IT job, and then fly there and just give it a try? Or maybe you have observed many Europeans going back after a couple years?

Patriotism Is Dangerous

Dear PID,

Important question: are people objecting to living in a country with those kinds of policies? Or are they objecting to living in a country where everyone wants to personally own a loaded pistol so they can kill anyone trying to have an abortion?

Here’s the thing. There’s the policies, and then there are the people. While it’s reasonable to avoid living in the U.S. because of it’s insane policies, especially as a non-citizen, it’s of course not reasonable to assume that every city is filled with people who are insane.

For that matter a friend of mine, who is not a descendant of Europeans, tells me that Europeans are hugely racist – not everyone, and not everywhere, but it makes him not want to travel to Europe. So we see the flip side of the coin, namely you can also have reason avoid a country that has reasonable policies but unappealing people.

I’m not really answering your question, but I do want to challenge you (and your European academic brethren) to think about it more carefully. In New York or San Francisco you won’t find a lot of people supporting the policies you despise, but then again you will be in some sense a part of that system even so.

As for what you should do: I know LOTS of Europeans who come here and love it, and still hate lots of the policy. My husband, for example. Of course I am less likely to meet people who leave. So do with that what you will.

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have a problem with this guy I was platonically interested in, because he seemed interesting conversation. Unfortunately, he turned out to be quite a self-centered person, so while having intelligent thoughts, his overflowing self confidence makes it less fun to be around.

Worse, he is sexually interested in me, despite my very clear messages that this is never going to happen. He claims freedom of speech of some sort and openness between friends. For a while he used opportunities when we meet at various social circles to kiss me and try to touch me, and once even made some loud embarrassing comments in the presence of a crowd.

I thought I had this under control, as we are both in stable, long term relationships, and I could handle this shit. Indeed he stopped for a while, but recently started texting me again. I don’t want to make a big scene, because innocent people may get hurt, so I try to be civil when we chance to meet, but I do wonder whether there is a particular angle at which I can kick him in the balls to get the message across.

Half Of The Time Intolerably Embarrassed

Dear HOTTIE,

OK so just to be SUPER CLEAR about this: have you told him in no uncertain terms to stop? Have you said “I want you to stop trying to be sexual with me, right now”? Have you texted him back with the words “please do not text me”? I will assume you have since it is CLEARLY not enough to think he will get the hint just because you guys are both in stable long-term relationships.

In other words, when you say you’ve given him “very clear messages” I need to believe that you mean “I said no”. Many many men do not hear “no” until you actually say that word, so please promise me you haven’t expected him to pick it up through certain looks or the way you don’t respond to a stolen kiss.

Okay, now that that is out of the way, I am surprised you are willing to talk to him at all. Are you still friends with him? Do you want to be? It sounds like you are somewhat ambivalent, which I think may be the problem here. He might be reading your continued interest in being his friend as sexual interest, or at least as a lack of sexual rejection.

My advice: next time he texts, ignore him altogether, and go ahead and block him now if that is hard to do. Next time you see him in person, if he tries something, take away his hand and say you’re not interested, and that you’re planning to talk to his long-term partner about how he can’t seem to stop trying something even though you’ve rejected him multiple times, and you’re going to ask his partner for advice on how to get him to stop. If he laughs or otherwise ignores you tell him you’re serious and might follow it up with a restraining order.

In other words, make it clear to him that it’s really not OK, the way he’s been acting, and that you are willing to risk real discomfort in relationships (especially his) to get this resolved. It has nothing to do with your relationship, so don’t feel threatened if he says he’ll talk to your long-term partner.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Thanks guys, Aunt Pythia has been feeling some love this week, ever since I threatened to murder her. Nothing like a damsel in distress to get the ethical-dilemma juices flowing. Please keep the questions coming though, we don’t want her continually scared and exhausted, that’s no way to live.

Don’t forget to ask a question at the bottom!!

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

My partner needs to find a new job. I believe she needs to (at least partially) reinvent herself, although she’s not very adventurous.

You’ve reinvented yourself a few times, you probably know a great deal about what works in this process. I remember you once posted about creating a spreadsheet and recording what you like, what you don’t etc until you found your dream job.

I’m looking for this type of exercises that would challenge her to find a job she loves as opposed to the job she can easily land. Any other insights from your remodeling thought process? Any other resources/reference you would recommend?

Abelian Grape

Dear Abelian,

I don’t believe much in astrology, but I can dig the next closest thing, which is personality tests. I recently looked in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and discovered that I’m a so-called “ENTP”, which is to say extroverted (duh), intuitive, thinking, and perceptive. Who knows why, a test told me[1]. That means I’m:

Quick, ingenious, stimulating, alert, and outspoken. Resourceful in solving new and challenging problems. Adept at generating conceptual possibilities and then analyzing them strategically. Good at reading other people. Bored by routine, will seldom do the same thing the same way, apt to turn to one new interest after another.

Why do I mention this? First of all because everyone loves talking about personality tests – trust me – and second of all because it’s in my nature to reinvent myself. I don’t do it because I’m theoretically excited by reinvention, but because I’m bored and compelled to start something new.

So, two conclusions. First, your partner might just not be like that. Second, she might be like that in special circumstances, but in that case she’d need to get to the point of frustration and boredom that she’s the one writing to Aunt Pythia for advice on self-reinvention rather than you. Once that happens I will indeed point her to my tools of reinvention.

My advice is to be supportive of her but not to push her into “reinvention” if that’s not how she rolls. It just won’t work and it will feel to her like another thing she’s failing at. Wait for her, and if you’re not the kind of person that is patient, then that’s a problem in itself and I’ll expect to hear back from you, although given how impatient I am, the advice won’t be hopeful.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

1. Actually, one test told me that, then another one said “ENFJ”, but “ENTP” helps me make my point better.

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I hope you’re feeling better.

This is, I admit, a rather lame question, as I am sure I could’ve answered it myself when I was a student. But now I’m old and hence stupid.

I’ll phrase it as a “sock drawer” question. Suppose my drawer contained 44 black socks and 116 white ones, and I draw them out blindly in pairs. What are the chances of getting exactly 10 black pairs?

More generally, if I have b black and w white socks, what is the probability of getting exactly p pairs of black ones?

Thanks Pythia-babe!

Socks Maniac

Dear Socks,

Are the socks already rolled into pairs? Not clear from your question, but I’ll assume so. Otherwise the question is harder, so please do re-submit if I got it wrong. Also, are you blindly taking out exactly 10 pairs and looking to see if they’re all black? I’ll assume that too since you didn’t specify.

Assuming the above, we’re starting with 22 black pairs and 58 white pairs in a drawer, and we take out 10 pairs, and we’re wondering what the chances are that they’re all black. We just need to count the total ways they could be all black and then divide by the total ways we could have done the extraction.

Start with the “all black” count: there are 22 ways we could choose the first black pair, then 21 ways to choose the second black pair, etc., so we get 22*21* … *13 ways altogether to get 10 black pairs.

Next, count the “anything goes” possibilities: we have 22+58=80 pairs of socks altogether, which means we have 80 ways to choose the first pair, then 79 ways to choose the second pair, etc., giving us 80*79*78*…*71 ways to get all ten pairs. Some of them will be all black, but not many.

In fact if you take that ratio – google “22*21*20*19*18*17*16*15*14*13/(80*79*78*77*76*75*74*73*72*71)” – you will see that the answer is very small indeed: 4e-7. You know it’s small if you need scientific notation.

Auntie P

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve spent the last year and a half working as, effectively, project manager to get a fairly cool academic mobile app out the door. We’ve applied for a grant to renew the project, but if the grant fails, I’ll be asked to leave \$reallyNiceCountry again.

How do I manage the sense of powerlessness that stems from being a 30-year-old freshly minted Ph.D. either about to be deported again or offered a job that allows me a sufficient contract window to become a permanent resident?

A sense of loyalty (and major deadlines) mean that I don’t feel right trying to apply for other jobs in case the grant is passed.

Dear Exhausted,

I’m glad you wrote. I really object to your sense of loyalty, and I see this all too often among freshly minted foreign-born Ph.D.’s.

Face it, you are a specialist in a bizarre system (the intersection of the academic system and the U.S. visa system) with ridiculously arbitrary and last-minute changes of plan. There is absolutely no reason for you not to develop other plans while you are waiting around for the grant to come through or not. In fact you’re a fool for not applying for other jobs, straight up. Deadlines are a short-term distraction from making your life in a country where you want to live. Your life plan is your priority, not someone else’s app deadline.

Here’s my advice, to you and to anyone else in a related situation. No wonder you’re feeling helpless, it’s because you’re acting passively and helplessly. Nobody is going to think strategically about your future except you. Never let this happen again, and get thee on the job market immediately. People with your education level and mad skillz will get great jobs if they go and look. But you gotta go and look. And if you need to learn other stuff to get a good job, then go learn that stuff. But don’t act like the stupid NSF is the voice of God.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

Why is it that the students for whom you’ve made the most opportunity, and invested the most in, are the ones that ultimately screw you?

Pissed Off Professor

Dear POP,

Without more details, I’m going to have to use my imagination here.

I can understand what you might mean by making opportunities for your students – you help them with their work, you write them letters, you make calls and introductions on their behalf to help them land jobs. Granted, it can be a lot of work and you are staking your reputation on their work ethic and smarts. On the other hand, it is your job, and you get paid for it, and your reputation also grows with theirs.

But I’m getting a bit lost with the them-screwing-you part. If they simply aren’t very good at the jobs you help them get, then I don’t think that can be considered screwing you. It’s hard for me to imagine exactly what that could mean beyond that. Is the student spreading nasty rumors about your work? Are there internal politics in your field and your student isn’t in your camp? Has the student stolen your ideas?

Or is it something totally normal, like the student doesn’t express sufficient gratitude for your help? In this case I’d say, welcome to young people. Being an advisor is a lot like being a parent, and in this society we don’t get lots of gratitude as parents. Move to China if you want that stuff.

Or maybe I missed it altogether, which is why you’d need to say more when you write back.

Aunt Pytha

——

Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Peoples! Peoples!

I counted the new Aunt Pythia questions for this week and guess what number I got to?

ZERO! I have ZERO new questions this week!

Now luckily I had a few extra questions stored away so we’re good today, but you know just as well as I that this cannot go on.

Let me say it like this. Either you guys cough up some juicy sex dilemmas or Aunt Pythia goes back to the hospital. I don’t like to make threats, especially to nice little old ladies like Aunt Pythia (actually she’s not that small), but I’ll do whatever it takes. I’m ruthless.

don’t forget to ask a question at the bottom!!

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

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

My family friends are always asking me suggestions for books/resources to help nurture theirs kids’ interest in mathematics/sciences/engineering. The thing is the only books I could recommend are aimed at the high school level, while usually their kids are still in elementary. Do you have any recommendations?

Thanks,

Perennial educational advice giver in family

Dear Peagif,

My parents did a good job of not turning me off of math by not forcing it down my throat. I’m on that same page, and I never send my kids to math circle or have them read math books or science stuff. But I am always available for a conversation about science or math, and I have a ridiculous number of puzzles lying around the house, at all times.

We also keep well stocked in construction toys like Zome Tools. We also use Zome Tools to make bubbles and we have glow-in-the-dark versions too.

So that’s my advice: nerd toys rock, and they don’t feel pressured.

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a postdoc in math and considering making a change to the private sector. I am still very active in research and teaching (in fact I quite like it, but I feel a change is necessary since academia requires too many compromises), and I am learning python on the side. I am not programming anything too hard-core yet; just little projects from free courses I can find online. I have two questions: right now my CV is very academia-oriented. How should I try to augment it to seem desirable in the wider world? Also, will my age become a serious liability the longer I wait (I am in my early thirties)?

Liking Academia But Really Ambivalent There

Dear LABRAT,

Ooooooh, nice name. I got a good feeling about your future just from that alone.

So, two things. First, you’re doing it right, and I don’t think your age is a problem. You will want to supplement your math career and python learning with some actual data problems. Take a look around for a nice data set and try to ask a question that you don’t think anyone’s asked but people might care about. Team up with some other nerds trying to learn data stuff so it’s more fun.

Second, I’d like to hear more about your current “compromises”. As I might have mentioned before, my motto is, “you never get rid of your problems, you just get a new set of problems”.

So if you’re sick of the problems you have as an academic, then fine, leave and become a data scientist. But if you think there are no compromises in data science, then think again. They’re different but they exist.

So here’s an offer: you show me your compromises, and I’ll show you mine.

Love,

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

My tenure-track position is at a university with non-selective admissions, and it is my first experience of such a college or university (from any viewpoint). A few of my students are quite good, and many are reasonably smart and or reasonably hard-working, but overall, my feeling is that, if these people are our future, then we are doomed. And the statistics tell us that students here are still above average among 18-year-olds. I don’t think most of them could ever learn to code, unless you count copying someone else’s code and modifying a line or two to fix the spelling errors in the output as coding.

Am I going to start believing that we have to all go Amish and stop using technology in order to avoid some apocalypse and or dictatorial dystopia? Worse yet, in twenty years, will I be living in a shack in the woods and mailing bombs everywhere in a futile attempt to reverse the advance of technology?

I could try to get a job at a school with more academically capable students, but the job market is tough, and going to a college or university that would just reject less capable students seems to be just burying my head in the sand. Industry and most government jobs are out, not only because it’s also burying my head in the sand, but also because my previous stint in the computer industry sensitized me to the evil that every for profit organization has to do or be involved it just to stay in business.

Depressed by near universal stupidity

Dear Depressed,

It seems to me that you’re conflating two interesting but different issues. First, whether you should get another job, and where might you do that, and second, what it means that the majority of the citizens don’t understand, and perhaps can’t understand, their ambient environment at a technical level.

The real question is, what do you need to understand to make a living nowadays? Let’s face it, nobody feels compelled to really understand how a microwave works except microwave manufacturers and possibly cancer researchers (apologies to anyone who knows how a microwave works who I’ve left out).

It’s not fair, in other words, to expect everyone to understand everything about a society’s technology. For that matter technology has been around a long time, and the hallmark of a really good technology is that most people don’t have to think about it at all. For a non-microwave example, consider the idea that government itself can be seen as a technology – some big black box where money goes in and reasonable laws and order come out. Note I’m simplifying here.

If you buy that reasoning, then the next question is, why would we even want the majority of people to know how to code? Why don’t we leave that to the subpopulation of people working on stuff that needs coding? Coders are the equivalent of microwave manufacturers, albeit much better paid. It would be a huge waste for the entire population to learn that skill, even if they were interested and capable of doing so (although Miss Disruption would not agree).

So, to come back to you, you’re teaching at a school where most of the people who go to your school are not going to be technical. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to do interesting things, of course, even if you don’t know what those interesting things are. And no, I don’t think living like the Amish would be a better option for them. They probably don’t think that what they do is so meaningless that they should replace it with manual labor in the fields.

But you could go ahead and do that yourself, it would solve your job problem, and it would also take you away from many of the people you consider so depressingly stupid.

If you want to get over your concerns, here’s something you could try. First, fully enjoy those students who are interested and good at the things you teach, and second, realize that people can lead super fulfilling and good lives doing nothing whatsoever technical. Indeed Amish people do it all the time, I’m sure, and get pleasure in being good members of the community or whatever floats their Amish boats. Give these young people some credit beyond the narrow question of whether they have this kind of talent and desire, and my guess is you’ll be less depressed.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

A couple of weeks ago, Aunt Pythia first posted a response to a question about a single person who masturbates to satisfy sexual urges, and if porn would help blah blah, and secondly, she responded to some nerds about fornicating in puzzle shops in hopes it might supply kinky role models to nerds everywhere, and in particular, possibly the ‘guy’ who asked the first question.

So, my question has to do with Aunt Pythia determining the sex of a particular poster, as the first thing I thought after reading that post was, “That poor woman needs to get laid!”

Does Aunt Pythia assume that all people who are single and masturbate without porn are guys, or should we be worried that she employs some Acxiom-style data warehousing techniques on her questions submission form?

Future Endeavors Are Remorseless

Dear FEAR,

Aunt Pythia fears (harhar) you have caught her in a lazy assumption, and she thank you for pointing it out. It is true that she assumed that the masturbator was male, and even though her original response to the masturbator was gender-neutral, her later reference to the masturbator was not. Apologies.

In Aunt Pythia’s defense, if it is allowed (and since this is her column, it is): if she had been going strictly by stereotypes, she might have assumed that the masturbator was female, since the masturbator had evidently never tried porn before. Just sayin’.

Love,

Aunt Pythia

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Quick question, oh Aunt Pythia lovers: should Auntie P establish a twitter account and answer 140-character questions with 140-character words of advice? This was an idea from a twitter follower. I’m considering it but I need feedback. Maybe people asking for advice don’t want to use their twitter account to do it? Or maybe the idea would be Auntie P could first ask and then answer? Ideas welcome.

In the meantime, please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

You know what’s awesome? I’ll tell you what’s awesome.

What’s awesome is waking up on Saturday and knowing it’s time to crack open the Aunt Pythia Google Doc and see what juicy ethical dilemmas there are to ponder. I live for this stuff, peoples! Thank you for offering your most intimate conundrums for me to rip open and expose to the world! I do appreciate it.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.

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Dear Auntie Py,

I keep thinking of starting my own blog about my favorite ten things: data, small tricks, visualization, things that fly, you know … But I am so immersed in the 10+ great blogs out there (mathbabe to mention one), that I keep consuming and enjoying, and never get around to sitting down and producing.

What do you think is a healthy balance of reading what awesome people have to say and trying to add one’s own two cents out there? Is it ever possible to do both seriously and thoroughly?

Dear BYOTCH,

Confession: I don’t regularly read anyone else’s blog. I spend quite a bit of time on Naked Capitalism, and I have historically spent quite a bit of time on Dealbreaker, although now that Matt Levine has moved to Bloomberg I am enjoying him there.

I also regularly check out a bunch of blogs, including my friend Jordan’s blog Quomodocumque, even though it’s impossible to spell. But let’s put it this way: I wasn’t aware of the moment that Google Reader disappeared, because I don’t need a reader for the kind of reading I do.

Not that I don’t read. I do read, a lot, and one way I do is I follow people on Twitter who use it like I do, mainly to post interesting links. That way I get to read all sorts of things from all sorts of sources. Also, I enjoy getting links from my readers and friends through email or chat.

So I guess my answer is, it’s just as important to diversify your reading than it is to balance reading and writing. As for writing, go here for more advice.

As for the seriously/ thoughtfully thing: don’t try too hard. In fact, the key is to have exactly one idea and write about it. If you try to have more than one idea it will be too long, too complicated, or both.

Finally, as for the academic writing: same answer. I think I wrote as many papers as I read, which is to say I didn’t read all that many papers. I mostly learned math through talking to people directly about their work and through going to talks, and early on through classes and homework. But that’s a personality thing, everyone’s different.

Good luck!

Aunt Py

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

Somewhere along the line I thankfully transitioned away from seeking advice. I no longer feel any need whatsoever to seek advice on anything major, ever, as the data is now in: nobody is better at advising me than myself.

In fact I would take this a level further by declaring that any compulsion to seek advice itself represents a bigger problem than whatever one might feel the need to be asking for advice about!

My fence position on giving advice is commensurate with the above, but hey, if it makes for juicy reading, why not!

Loopy Not

Dear Loopy,

Putting aside the fact that you filled out an advice form to object to the concept of advice giving, I totally agree with you. I’d put it another way though. Often, when people think they have a question about topic A, in asking it they expose that they have a much greater need to be advised on topic B, and topic B is usually something like “how do I make important life decisions?”.

Put it another way. Religious readers of Aunt Pythia may have noticed that she consistently offers advice akin to “think for yourself!” at the rate of every second week or so. You might imagine that this means Aunt Pythia wishes her job weren’t giving advice at all, but that is false. In fact, Aunt Pythia loves her job, and wants to help people, but she often considers the best way to help is to answer the question that nobody thought to ask.

So if someone’s asking a question that they should answer themselves (“should I marry this woman that I love dearly even though so-and-so doesn’t think it will work out?”) the answer isn’t directed at the question, the answer is directed at the question of what it means to have free will.

That’s a more important and universal question anyway, and moreover talking it over in a nurturing and thoughtful environment is not a useless exercise: people have been known to emerge courageous and determined from such conversations, and they go forth boldly and make the decisions they already should have been making.

Finally, to address your defiant position on advice-giving. Putting aside the fact that you’ve given me advice on never giving advice, I will defend my occupation thus: some people get something from advice, other people ignore it. Feel free to ignore it.

Yours,

Aunt Pythia

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Hi Babe,

I am a junior faculty in a university you know. Last semester I had an undergrad in my class who had (and still has) a crush on me. The feeling is mutual, but she chose to take another course with me, so our flirtation has gone nowhere. I am afraid that she will ask to supervise her senior thesis, which I could but don’t want to do. Instead, I want to pursue a relationship with her. Should I take her to coffee and explain my predicament?

Hands off, buddy. You don’t know what kind of crush she has one you – it could very well be an intellectual crush, and she could be taking another course with the reasonable expectation of writing a senior thesis with you. In other words, she’s investing her time and scholarly energy into this relationship, and it’s simply not fair to her academic career for you to throw that all away because you want to get into her pants.

Think about it this way. Let’s say some man took two classes from you, and say you went out to coffee with that man to tell him you can’t do a senior thesis with him but you’d love to be his basketball buddy.

Would that be reasonable? No, it wouldn’t. And that’s the smell test here. You can’t derail her intellectual investment just because she happens to be attractive.

As for the flirting, it’s possible she does have a crush on you, but it’s also possible that she’s just psyched to get attention from a professor, and the power differential makes her willing to take that attention in any form she can. So don’t get too high on it, it’s called power.

My advice: don’t make a move on her, be her advisor, and be her advocate. If it’s meant to be then she’ll come to your office someday after she graduates, when she’s no longer at your mercy, and she’ll tell you she’s interested as one adult talks to another. But even then it’s gotta come from her.

Finally, you might want to reread the papers you signed when you took this job. They’re not window dressing.

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

Today, I had a substitute teacher in my linear algebra class. As he walked in, it was as if Gandalf had appeared to lead his hobbits to their destinies. Grey bearded, tall, hunched, and with an almost accusing nose as he peered out expectantly, he wielded those matrices with the ease of someone who had defeated vectors from as far away as Eigen to the East and series from Fourier to the South. As much as he was intimidating he was also reassuring in his insistence that not only could we understand the material, but that our quest was a righteous one. My question is, as a math major soon to graduate (hopefully) without any specific plans, where is my ring to toss in Mount Doom?

Looking for Mount Doom

Dear Looking for Mount Doom,

You know how, when you’re an uber nerd from an uber nerd family, all those nerdy books and movies kind of make no sense to you because you’ve seen them since you were 4 and you just weren’t capable of deconstructing stuff and interpreting stuff when you were 4?

Well, your question has forced me to think about the meaning of the ring, and of Mount Doom, and who Gandalf was, and who Frodo was, and try to understand the extent to which we are all Frodos, and we each have our own ring to throw into our personal Mount Dooms, and I gotta tell you, I got nothing.

However, if I might shift the frame just a wee bit, and suggest that your linear algebra sub was probably actually Obi Wan Kenobi, not Gandalf, then this one’s easy: go find yourself a Yoda (thesis advisor) and learn how to use the force (of mathematics). And remember: there is no try, only do.

Good luck,

Auntie P

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Before I end today’s column, I’ve got something to share with you, but only if you’re ready for it.

If you’re in a spicy mood on this Saturday morning, please check out a new advice blog my anonymous friend sent me. It’s called Never Sleep Alone, and it contains lots of wisdom about sex and dating, albeit couched in a ridiculously macho, possibly satirical (but possibly not) framework, especially in this post entitled Why You Suck And What To Do About It.

In other words, the advice is good, not all the assumptions are.

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s mailbox has been satisfyingly full this week, and she thanks you all for your questions. Please keep them coming, she looks forward to Saturdays ever so much.

Go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I want to pursue a career as a data scientist. I am very comfortable with maths and statistics and love spending time with large data sets. However, I don’t have any background in programming. I am wondering what all I can do in the next 12-18 months to be a pro in this field and whether a degree is data science the way to go about it.

Future Data Scientist

Dear FDS,

First of all, I feel like I’m being set up by Miss Disruption on this question, whose answer is always “learn to code” and who came out with another hilarious advice column this past week (best line: “Instead of putting your trust in what you think looks like Mark Zuckerberg, put your trust in numbers. Numbers that will tell you how much someone looks like Mark Zuckerberg.”).

Second of all, I think you need to learn to code. It’s fun, and the number of resources available nowadays is outrageous. Plus you don’t have to be a really good coder to be a data scientist (I know, I’ve just offended a bunch of people). You just need to be able to get the data into usable format, which is tricky, and then you need to know what to do with it – it’s much more about questions of what to do than it is about questions of whether your code looks great, at least when you’re working on your own projects.

Depending on your preferred learning style, I’d say get a classic CS text and read it, or take some free courses online, or just start on a project and refer to examples to learn how to do specific tasks.

Oh, and first install Anaconda.

Good luck!

Cathy

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

A decade ago I had a bad breakup with my first girlfriend (in which I felt I was largely at fault). After a while, she wanted to continue being friends, but I found this too difficult and told her never to contact me again. Over the years, I made peace with myself, and periodically thought of contacting her to apologize, but always held back (note: I never once had any intention of getting back with her romantically).

Now, I’ve been married for years, and it’s also been years since she’s been married with a kid (I know only because of a mutual friend), and for some reason she sent me a friend request on Facebook.

1. Because of our mutual friends on Facebook, both our existences on Facebook are clear; I have never sent her a friend request, however.
2. This a violation of my old request not to be contacted.
3. I’m over that old request and don’t have a problem with resuming some minimal contact in the form of “Facebook friend”.
4. I asked my wife if it’s OK, and she got weird about it, and we concluded that therefore it’s not OK.
5. I was considering sending her a message that my wife said it’s not OK.
6. My wife thinks that would be weird and I should ignore her.
7. I don’t want to just ignore her but want to at least finally say I’m sorry for the things I said in the last communication we had a decade ago.

Dear What,

I’m going to respond to your points in turn.

1. If I’m her, I think it’s super safe to ask to be your friend since we’re both married now.
2. Who the hell thinks a decade-old request like that still holds? That’s just plain weird.
3. How kind and generous of you! Not really.
4. Sounds to me like you’re trying to make your wife take responsibility here for your stuff.
5. That’s super ridiculous. Either man up and be her friend or leave her alone.
6. Again with what the wife thinks. Think for yourself!
7. If you really want to apologize, just do it.

This is something you either need to own, and do it right, either on Facebook or by email, since you presumably could get her email via a common friend, or you need to put to bed and forget about. I’m sure she’d prefer the former (and I’m guessing that you would too, at least once you got yourself to do it) but is already making do with the latter. What you don’t do is send her some crapola about how you “can’t be Facebook friends with her” because of your wife. That’s nuts.

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Auntie P,

I think sex is awesome. How do I have more of it?

I am in a very stable, loving relationship for over a decade, with all the kids and stuff that happens when you spend so long with someone (and I love all it). We have good sex, sometimes great sex, but we only rarely have amazing sex. Here are some specific questions for you:

1. I want sex a lot more often than my partner. That’s a bit frustrating, what should I do?

2. I’d love to try something different. Not too crazy, but different. We know each other too well and are more often than not following into the routine of “efficient sex”, going for the kill. What do I do?

3. With kids, a busy job, lots of hobbies and other stuff, and not enough sleep, how do you make time for long sex sessions? I’ve never tried cocaine, should I begin?

Thanks for the tips,

Perverse Bundle

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Dear PB,

First of all, you are not alone. This is about the most common complaint I hear from my friends in happy marriages. First, be proud that it’s as good as it is!

Next, the truth is, no two people have exactly the same sex drive, and over time the mismatch of desire gets worse due to the natural form of complementary schismogenesis which exists in practically every sexual relationship.

That is to say, the man or woman who wants more sex, even if it’s just a little bit more, starts to feel rejected, and has moments of aggressiveness and hostility surrounding their unmet desire, which makes the man or woman who wants less sex feel even less like it, and the ante gets upped, and the cycle continues. It’s a feedback loop that often spirals out of control.

It doesn’t even sound like that’s where you are, but it’s a danger because it’s always a danger.

How does one build a dampening effect to counteract this schismogenesis? Maybe it would be possible to explicitly funnel your unmet desires into some other activity where you get attention, though possibly not sexual attention.

So, you could have friends over regularly for parties with your partner, or you could go out with your friends regularly, or you could get ambitious and start playing the guitar and go out to do open mics, or you could even join a band. The point is that you get fun stuff to do and not enough time to dwell on being rejected, and moreover your partner will find you irresistibly cute and brave and sexy once you’re up on stage.

Next, when you’re super busy with kids and national tours from your new music career, long sex sessions don’t happen by themselves. You need to make time for them, in the form of date nights. And dates can happen inside bedrooms, but even so, call them “date nights” since that sounds better than “scheduled sex”.

Finally: say no to cocaine, but do buy sex toys.

Good luck!

Auntie P

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Dear Auntie,

I’m not always as good a parent as I’d like myself to be. I’m trying to reason with my 3 kids who are all younger than 4, but they always go too far and I end up yelling too often. I NEVER yell at anyone else, though. I know exactly the kind of situations that trigger the yelling, but they’re unavoidable. What should I do?

Uncle Stach

Dear Uncle Stach,

First, I have an enormous amount of sympathy for anyone dealing with even one kid, never mind three. So give yourself a break, and try try again, every morning. It’s a life-long job and it’s totally possible to slowly improve your techniques over time.

Second, I think I know what your problem is: namely, there’s no reasoning with kids under 4 years old. There’s ritual and rules, and depending on how old they are and how consistently you proceed with those rituals and rules, they might or might not be familiar with how things are going to work out. My advice is to choose a ritual (going to bed seems to be a good one) and make sure it is incredibly consistent and early (say 6:30 or 7:00 pm, no kidding) and do the exact same thing every day for two weeks with all your kids. Getting a good night’s sleep is absolutely vital for being able to handle the next day. Once you’ve got that ritual down, introduce other rituals and slowly create a world for them which is embedded with rituals, which kids totally adore.

As for reasoning: you can start reasoning with kids once they’re in school. Before that, just give them the choice of two options: drawing or jigsaw puzzle, playground or sprinklers, do what I want or do what I really want.

Third, there’s yelling and then there’s yelling. What you absolutely cannot do is get abusive when you yell. Stuff like “you’re stupid” or “you’re lazy” has been shown to be as damaging for teenagers as physical abuse, so don’t do it. Don’t shame kids or insult them, ever. If you find yourself tempted to make blanket negative statements, take five and go to the bathroom. When they do nasty things, by all means make them apologize for those actions, but never let those actions define them.

On the other hand, a stern tone of voice when you tell your 3-year-old to sit in her chair until dinner is over it totally appropriate, as long as it doesn’t turn into a screaming match. As for screaming: my advice is to ignore screams, and if they don’t dissipate, put kids in their rooms so at least it’s not as loud. Never give in to a screaming kid, that’s like asking them to scream.

Finally, here’s a book I really got a lot out of: Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Explained to me how to get my babies to sleep 12 hours a night, which they pretty much still do.

Good luck! And enjoy them!!

Aunt Pythia

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Every week, I look into Aunt Pythia’s official Google spreadsheet (it’s true she lives a super glamorous life) and every week I expect it to be my last, since at the end of the day I have fewer leftover questions than will last a week.

And yet… and yet. Somehow questions wander in, over the week, one on Tuesday, one on Friday, and when I open it up again, voila! I have a columns-worth of bad advice to spew forth once again. It’s like a tiny, possibly negative miracle.

That is not to say, dear readers, that you shouldn’t be worried about the rate of question asking!! Please do take it upon yourself to be involved!

And just in case it wasn’t clear, anything’s fair game. From “How do I get my kids to eat broccoli?” to “How do I stop fantasizing about living forever and focus on enjoying my life now?” I’m prepared to give step-by-step, humorous and mostly irrelevant suggestions.

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

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am single and I rely on masturbating to satisfy my sexual urges, but it feels kind of heartless and empty. Could porn help? Or, do I actually need to go out and find a partner?

It depends on what you mean by “help”. If you mean, “can porn make my solo masturbation sessions more efficient?”, I’d have to say “yes, for sure.” I’d also say that if you managed to figure out how to ask Aunt Pythia a question but haven’t figured out how to experiment with porn, then I can understand why you’re sad.

In terms of avoiding heartless emptiness, meeting a real life person is probably key. Plus they might like watching porn with you.

Aunt Pythia

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Dearest Auntie P,

I just started having great sex with one of my best friends, and although we both have other sexual partners, we’re both digging this new fling. Do you have any suggestions for sex positions or other things we can throw in to make our sexual relations even more exciting? (We’re both math nerds, so we already have the nerd pillow talk thing going on, but suggestions there would also be awesome.)

Nerdelicious

Dear Nerdilicious,

Oooh oooh!! I got something!

Go on a date at the Museum of Math. I went there the other week over my lunch break, since I work about 2 blocks away, and I was like, what is this museum good for except maybe school field trips and nerd dates?

I couldn’t come up with anything, and since I saw lots of field trips I think it’s high time we cue you cuties. Momath.org, check it out. Please take pics of yourselves making out in every single exhibit, that place could use some sexing up. The gift shop’s great, though, lots of puzzles.

Wait, what if you don’t live in New York? Turns out there are plenty of people with that attribute, especially people who live in Guangzhou China, which as I’ve recently learned is absolutely massive.

In that case, I’d say that, to stay with the theme of sexing it up in public, I’d encourage you to look around for a straight-up puzzle store, some place that sells D&D starter kits with lots of different colored dice possibilities. Look, we need to give young nerds hope that someday they’ll get laid, and you guys are now their role models, including perhaps the guy above who asked the first question.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

A question from a person who is realizing a bit too late that academia is not gonna do it for him:

What kind of non-academic jobs are there for mathematicians (beyond PhD, even postdoc) that do not involve a lot of coding/programming, but otherwise do involve their problem solving abilities?

If you have discussed this question at length in your blog already, I am sorry for not reading regularly, and I’d appreciate a link to the relevant posts.

Thanks a lot!

Dear Lost,

I’d say, learn to code! After all, coding is just a specific way of formally solving problems in a language that computers can understand. I’d say if you’re really a mathematician with a Ph.D. then learning to code should be pretty easy. Don’t be afraid of it, and for sure don’t be thinking you’re above it.

As far as how to learn to code, pick up a book or take an online class or just pick a project and a language (python) and a start puzzling it out. There are so many resources nowadays, you get to decide what works for you. What doesn’t work for you or your job prospects, though, is refusing to learn to code.

Good luck,

Auntie P

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

This isn’t a question, rather an experience.

I had the most fulfilling dream last night: I bought a pair of pants from a thrift shop that once belonged to you, Aunt Pythia, and discovered after purchasing them that you left some rather important mail in the pockets (there was also an old package in there too… I don’t remember the precise geometry of these pants).

So anyway, I had to get in touch with you and you agreed to meet me in person. So I could return to you the mail. That you left in your old pants. That you gave away to a thrift store. The point being that I got to ask you all my nerdy Aunt Pythia questions over a beer while giving it back. The end.

Love,

Dreamer

Dear Dreamer,

Holy shit, I had that same dream!

No, just kidding, I didn’t. But if that was a bizarre way of asking me to have a beer with you, then I think I’ll have to say yes. But I fully expect you to return my mail as well as my package, thanks.

Lovey dovey,

Aunt Pythia

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Peoples!! Peoples!!

I know you came for Aunt Pythia (thank you very much!) but today I must insist that, first, you go read my new hero’s advice column, Dear Miss Disruption, who has been quite the twitter celebrity this week.

Written by a law student named Sarah Jeong from Oakland, Miss Disruption has super awesome advice for the budding entrepreneur – or, in fact, anyone at all. She even took on my favorite topic, namely how people lie when counting their previous lovers! Here’s a tasty excerpt:

I sympathize. You and I both know, learning to code is the best way to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Hell, look at me. Other than my affluent Orange County family, my Stanford bachelor’s degree, and the \$10 million that my uncle invested as seed capital for my innovative advice column start-up, I have nothing but my ability to code.

I’ll admit that Miss Disruption is a tad more sarcastic than Aunt Pythia, but she’s super funny and smart just like Aunt Pythia, so I know you guys will love her.

After you go read her stuff, please come back here, read my stuff, and, by all means,

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am 26, and I presently work in education. I studied history as an undergrad, but I would like to pursue a master’s degree in statistics. I need to learn some lower division math and programming. There are online courses and resources out there. Would it be better to pursue the courses with instructors and peers to the extent possible, or do you think it makes little difference?

Depressed in the Burbs

Dear Depressed,

It depends. In terms of what you might learn, I could see it making very little difference. But you have another goal too, namely getting into a masters program in statistics. It might be more convincing to the admissions people to see an official set of courses in math and programming with official grades than for you to tell them you learned it on your own, although perhaps online courses do offer quasi-official grades, and also it might depend on the masters program – some of them are just cash cows.

But then there’s also the issue of sticking it out and being invested. Have you considered taking these courses at some kind of extension school or community college? The community part of it might end up helping a lot.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia

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Dearest Aunt Pythia,

A beloved friend of mine recently came to visit and spent two sweet days singing with me, laughing at nothing/everything, gorging ourselves on waffles, and otherwise squandering time in shared luxurious idleness. In sum, fun was had.

The day after she left, I discovered a fat wad of cash underneath my pillow, which she hid there for me to find in a characteristic act of willful generosity. The thing is, I did nothing to earn this money and in fact feel quite indebted to her for her lifelong friendship and general camaraderie. My dilemma is: should I keep the money or send it back? If the former, how can I possibly thank her for her disproportionate magnanimity? I’m verklempt over here.

Grateful Gal Pal

Dear GGP,

Money is a funny thing, especially between friends. But sometimes it actually isn’t. Here’s my wild guess as to the circumstances.

Your good friend was incredibly grateful for your sanctuary and your luxurious idleness, which is exactly what she needed at that moment and perhaps even saved her sanity and her life, and was in particular an almost offhand bounty naturally stemming from your lifestyle. She wanted to give you something in return that was her kind of offhand bounty that she thought might help you with your life – at the very least to sustain you for some time in the heaven in which you currently reside.

So ask yourself this: is this an amount of money she can afford? Can it give you pleasure in some small way? If so, then please accept it as it was meant, namely as a thank you and a gift, and go buy ingredients for some more waffles.

Love always,

AP

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I had a very weird dream today. I dreamed that, to support Snowden, all couples in the world made a porn video and uploaded it in the Internet. Did I already surpass the limits of madness?

Crazy Lazy

Dear CL,

I for one think Chelsea Manning is hot. That’s what I got for this question.

AP

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have recently discovered my partner of 2 years had sexual relations with his aunt not long before we began our relationship. He claimed to be a virgin when I started seeing him and now I know he lied. I love him and we have children together, I would like some advice and opinions thank you.

A

Dear A,

First of all I’m getting a bit confused thinking about how you can have multiple children together given that you have only been together 2 years. I’m guessing you got started quick and you had twins, or you got started immediately, squeezed out a pup, and then immediately got pregnant again, which is super unlikely.

Or you made up this whole thing, which is always a possibility that advice columnists need to consider. It’s probably even more likely given the incest theme. But whatever, I’m almost out of questions.

Second, I think it really depends on the circumstances. Was he a kid? Was it sexual abuse perpetrated on him by a trusted loved one? If so, by all means forgive him immediately, but also have him seek counseling if he’s willing.

The tough one is if he was an adult when he got involved with the Aunt. I’m no expert on human sexuality but I’d guess that someone who doesn’t have taboos about incest with Aunts might not have taboos with other kinds of things either. That would creep me out as the mother of this guy’s kids.

In any case, my advice to you is to go seek counseling yourself with an expert on sexual abuse.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

You know how you sometimes wake up and just feel like the luckiest person in the world? With the awesomest friends and family? And you just wanna go hug everything and everyone?

That is where Aunt Pythia is today, psychically speaking. Aunt Pythia is feeling so good that her usual quarrelsome self is in hiding, and every single piece of her advice is therefore probably useless, but so be it, it feels damn good.

Oh, and one more thing before the worthless drivel revs up: Aunt Pythia has noticed that people close to her don’t enjoy her columns very much at all, possibly because “they get to hear Aunt Pythia’s advice all the time and are frankly sick of it.”

So if you’re someone who does like Aunt Pythia’s advice column, please sing it loud and clear! The best way to express your AP love, of course, is by posing your very own ethical dilemma at the bottom of this column, so Auntie P has something to do next Saturday (she’s running low).

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m 20 years old, very much a virgin, dating my boy for 2 and a half years and when it comes to the question of having sex, we have had oral sex but not intercourse as we decided it would be best to wait since no one knows about the future. Am i missing out on too much if i wait till i get married in seven years from now (which is a long time of course)?

Dear Strong,

A few things. First of all, it disturbs me that you are planning so far ahead that you’ve already chosen 7 years as the amount of time before getting married. Where did that come from? That’s a lifetime of adulthood from the point of view of a 20-year-old. Who knows what country you’ll live in in 7 years, or what kind of job you’ll have.

Next, if you pair that with your alleged reason for not getting laid which is “since no one knows about the future”, it makes even less sense that you’re willing to wait for some arbitrary and enormous amount of time before getting down to the business of doing what you supposedly want with your life.

About that – do you actually want to get married? Well I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t, but I am saying you should figure out what you want and do it, and don’t ask other people, and don’t make plans based on random external rules.

Finally, the sex thing. I’m never going to understand why people come to me for sex advice since the one and only thing I ever ever say is “go for it!”.

Unless… unless they are somehow using me as a way of making an excuse to themselves for doing something they actually want to do already – I’m a proxy moral authority, perhaps? It’s happened.

So, if I’m playing that role, then by all means go do what you already want to do, but my real advice is to be your own moral authority next time. Your life, go live it.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

When will we see the space elevator in operation?

Carbon diox

Dear Carbon,

Seriously! I am super impatient for that myself. And I appreciate how your question somehow implies that it’s all set to go but nobody’s turned it on yet.

AP

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

This isn’t a question for AP, but instead a suggestion for a MB post: what are your thoughts on the Colin McGinn case?

Tough shit, it came through Aunt Pythia’s feed so that’s what you get.

So actually I had to google Colin McGinn, since I hadn’t heard about it, and I supplied the link I reached above, so if that’s not representative then I apologize.

In any case I’ll comment based on that article.

First, it’s not a huge surprise to me, to hear of an academic discipline and culture filled with bullies, which sometime extends to sexual predation, and that women are excluded from that field for both the bullying reason and the sexual predation reason. This is super consistent with having a crappy and overly aggressive culture.

I’ve never entered the academic discipline of philosophy myself, but something that scares me about the field is the idea that you rely on your intelligence to make your point, rather than any outside evidence, like you might in science, or outside logical fact, like you might in mathematics.

In other words, I like math because it’s filled with people who know how to admit they’re wrong (some subfields of math are better than others at this). I like experimental science because, when they claim something will happen and it doesn’t happen, they have to revise their theory. I don’t like philosophy because arguments are slippery, like this one that Colin McGinn gave as an explanation for sending aggressive sexual requests to his first year graduate student:

Mr. McGinn said that “the ‘3 times’ e-mail,” as he referred to it, was not an actual proposal. “There was no propositioning,” he said in the interview. Properly understanding another e-mail to the student that included the crude term for masturbation, he added later via e-mail, depended on a distinction between “logical implication and conversational implicature.”

“Remember that I am a philosopher trying to teach a budding philosopher important logical distinctions,” he said.

Yuck!

I’m not saying the field can’t recover, but until they work on it, I won’t feel sorry for the fact that women are under-represented.

Auntie P

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

This question stems from your response from one of last week’s questions (the last one):

“The truth is, once you’ve been politicized and sensitized to the evil that organizations do or are involved in, you start to see it everywhere. Or if not everywhere, at least most places where you get paid.”

I have certainly found this to be true, as a physics student with a long career in retail to help support the student-ing.

Does it get better? Or easier to accept and harder to maintain some abstract idealism? Must this perspective in some way be balanced? I have dreams of grad school and research, but I wonder if even then it will be true that organizations are weird things that involve people behaving in unfortunate ways.

Reading Chomsky doesn’t seem to help.

-rage against the machine

Dear rage,

Great question! I think it does get better, and although it’s hard to maintain a long list of personal heroes when you keep looking behind the curtain and learning too much, I’ve found it’s not impossible to maintain idealism itself. It’s something you need to nurture, though, for sure, and it takes patience – you have to play the long game.

In other words, some people are aware of the hypocrisies and evils of the world and decide it’s too big to deal with so they figure they’ll just ignore it. Other people see that stuff and try to do everything, and they burn out. Other people just don’t see it at all.

I think a middle ground is good: try to do what you can, and make that a long term goal, and have standards you actually live by that help you make decisions. If, for example, you feel complicit in something you consider evil, then get the fuck out, even if it means quitting your job. You’ll get another job, I’m guessing, especially with a physics background and the ability to read Chomsky.

One thing I want to stress: don’t depend on a single person or a couple of persons to embody the ideals that you care about, because they’ll probably end up disappointing you at some point, and that’s not a great reason to throw in the towel. Instead, write up an internal list of your ideals, they’ll never let you down.

Good luck!

Love,

Aunt Pythia

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Hey it’s Saturday and unlike last week, I know it! That means it’s time for Aunt Pythia to spew forth her ill-considered advice to thoroughly nice people such as yourself.

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a 48-year-old newly single mother of teenagers. I finally have time to date and am seeking the statistically most successful way to meet single, available men. I do not like to hang out in bars and my “sports” interests are ballet and yoga–not anywhere any heterosexual men usually hang out. I do love wine but joining a wine “club” would be prohibitively expensive, and a book club is also not where available men can be found. Do you suggest I take up new activities in my life to meet men? And if so, which ones would maximize my chances in my age group and my proclivity to be introverted? Please do not suggest match.com–it was a disaster.

Thanks,
Statistically Seeking Mr. Right

Dear SSMR,

I suggest you take up a nerd sport, like learning a programming language – python?. Join a python meetup group in your area and go to some meetings and wait for a super nice nerd to show up. Note: super nice nerds might not talk a lot, so you might need to be patient and/or draw them out.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m an incoming senior undergrad CS student at Columbia.

This summer, I’m very fortunate to be working on some very interesting problems in data science, learning a ton, and implementing and testing a lot of models of my own. It’s more research/science type stuff, rather than software engineering, and I really want to continue to do this (while being compensated) after graduation next year.

The problem is, I’ve never once considered grad school (I’m really not an academic type and I love working with real data in real companies). Is it possible for a new graduate to get a research-type data science job, or at least mostly research-type, without a further degree? More importantly, I’d like to work on interesting problems, that hopefully will benefit the greater good, at least in some way.

If so, where do these jobs lie, and how can I get there?

Fledgling Scientist

Dear Fledgling Scientist,

It’s interesting how, at least for you, there’s a disconnect between the desire to be doing abstract research and the desire to be at grad school. What does that say about the reputation of grad school? What does it symbolize to you if not doing abstract research? Would you reconsider that?

Here’s the thing. I’ma be honest with you, most research doesn’t pay for itself. Indeed it’s pretty rare for research to pay off. So companies, especially start-ups that don’t have extra money floating around, will not pay for people to be abstract researchers, even if they’re proven professionals (i.e. they have Ph.D.’s and lots of papers).

Even in my job, where I’m an experienced researcher in math, and to some extent it’s my job to be a researcher in data science, it’s not abstract at all – I’m trying to figure out how to start a business in data science that will create a revenue stream of real cash money.

I don’t want to be completely negative, so here’s an idea for you that doesn’t require grad school. Get a job that pays pretty well but isn’t full time and do research in your spare time. It might not pay off cash-wise but it could very well make you money. And after a while you might decide that getting a Ph.D. would suit you.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

First of all: happy belated birthday!

In a couple of weeks I’m going to be taking part in a really awesome program at my university that brings low-income/first-generation college students to campus for a week to work on a research project with a lab of their choice before starting here in the fall. I get to be their Resident Assistant during this time and help them out with their lab projects/presentations. I’m feeling incredibly excited but also incredibly nervous about staring this! For example, I keep having imaginary conversations with hypothetical students in one or another life-situation with the aim of trying to figure out what’s the best possible advice/consolation I could offer them in that theoretical moment (this is just symptomatic of how math has drilled my brain to think about everything. I’m not actually crazy).

But whenever I overanalyze something to this extent I tend to become aloof and disconnected from the reality of it when it actually happens. It’s really important to me that I DO NOT DO THIS because I would love to be able to keep interacting regularly with these kids once the program finishes and I don’t want them to think of me as that weird guy who shakes his gravelly hands and mumbles whenever they bring up an academic/personal problem that I might *actually* be able to help them with (given on my own crazy and nonlinear experience). So how can I avoid doing this? How can I keep it real? Any other nuggets of wisdom you’d like to offer me going into this would also be greatly appreciated!

Derp dErp deRp derP

Dear Dddd,

Thanks for the birthday wishes! I had a great one.

Let’s see. Your job is to help kids with research projects, and you want to do a good job and keep it real, and you want to keep in touch with them. They’re also low-income/ first-generation college students.

My first piece of advice is to be nice and to articulate very loudly that you’re here to help and you want to make yourself available to them. That is always appreciated by people who don’t know what they’re doing. My next suggestion is to assume they are nerds, here to learn, and want to be challenged as well as to impress. So get ready to be impressed, and be sure to give positive feedback when it’s appropriate. People really love that stuff.

Third, you mention you have had a crazy and non-linear experience yourself. It might help them to know that, to relate to you, because chances are they might have moments of feeling out of place. But I’d wait on telling them until it’s one-on-one and you’ve already established a friendship and mutual respect. For example, it’d be a good time to mention this if they’ve come to you in a panic because they’ve been feeling over their head but know they can rely on you for advice. And also for example, it’d be a bad time to mention this on the first day when they’re all just meeting you, because it’d come across as you not expecting much from them.

Finally, it’s always fun to work with young people, so have a great time! Feed off their energy and they’ll feed off of your wisdom.

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I recently finished up a masters in applied mathematics. I also recently left the Air Force to stop being a part of an organization that does awful awful things. I am now trying to find a job that hopefully uses my recent degree and avoids working for an organization that does awful things. Currently this means I am teaching small children to ice skate and play hockey which is great but doesn’t quite fill up the day or have much of any direct connection to math.

I am wondering what I could do and where I could look to avoid being chewed up by the military-industrial complex or other such entity? (see: financial sector) I’ve been looking at teaching jobs and been avoiding the thought of going for a PhD (so far, that bug will bite soon I’m sure), but I wondered if there might be other options I haven’t thought of. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Will Math to Feed Book Habit

Dear Will,

Yikes.

The truth is, once you’ve been politicized and sensitized to the evil that organizations do or are involved it, you start to see it everywhere. Or if not everywhere, at least most places where you get paid.

So if you’re dead-set on not being part of that stuff at all, your options are limited. For example, working at Google might not be a good idea for you since we don’t really know what they do. Facebook is pretty much a no fly zone, depending on what it is you have objections to. Start-ups often participate in weird shit in ways they don’t want to acknowledge (and sometimes don’t – you should be on the look-out for a good job at a small start-up in any case).

Here’s my suggestion: do math tutoring. I know people who get paid pretty darn well for math tutoring, especially for wealthy kids. And yes, there are issues around that too, of course, but on the other hand you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, and you’re pretty much independent. Plus you’ve already shown you can work with kids, so it might be an easy transition. Over time you can start a math tutoring company and run it with no ties to anyone you don’t like.

Auntie P

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I was in Penn Station today around 6pm and a guy came up to me and asked me if he could ask me a question. I said okay, and well he first asked me if I spoke English, and then he said he needed money to take the train to Patchogue (which I later looked up costs \$12.75). I wasn’t sure what to do, and I just reflexively I guess asked him how much it the fare was and he said 11.75 and well, then I took out my wallet and had 12 bucks so I gave it to him and he thanked me and walked away (I had to catch my own train elsewhere and so I don’t know whether he bought a ticket to patchogue or not).

After he walked away, I felt a bit silly for giving him so much – I could have just said no, but I often have a hard time saying no – and felt like I hadn’t stood up for myself, and had given him the money so that he would go away (I felt threatened/intimated by him because of reasons that aren’t PC to mention; but there were plenty of people around so I didn’t consider myself to be in imminent danger).

At the same time, I tried to make myself feel better by reminding myself that I can’t take any money with me when I die, and that I expect to die with more than 12 bucks in my name, so in the end it doesn’t matter, and maybe he was having a rough time so I perhaps I did my good deed for the day.

On the other hand, giving money away like that just encourages people/panhandlers to ask, maybe it is a scam (btw this would be the second time within the last year I was asked in Penn Station such a question (I said no the previous time but it was a lady that was asking so I didn’t feel threatened), and I’m only in there about once a week) and so sometimes I say no to such requests.

So my question is, what would AP do? (Oh, if it matters, I make \$70,000 a year, and have no dependents). And what does MB do when asked by panhandlers for spare change?

Penn \$tation

Dear Penn,

First of all, I like that you gave the dude \$12 – I’ve been scammed before – plus, I like your “death bed” reasoning as well, it makes sense to me. I don’t think you need to feel weird or ashamed of what you’ve done.

On the other hand, it’s not what I do. I never give scary men money because they’re threatening me, whether they’re black or white, on principle, and I’ve never had a problem with saying no. In fact I almost never give money to strangers at all, except when they’re older women who seem like they’ve been thrown out of mental institutions. Then I often give them \$20 bills, and they’re often not even asking for them because they’re so confused.

Since I live and work in New York and commute to work via subway most days, giving money to everyone who asks me for it could actually be bad for my family over time. But that’s not why I don’t do it. Mostly I don’t do it because, having worked in soup kitchens and having read enough about childhood poverty and hunger, I know that the people who need petty cash the most aren’t the ones asking for it in Penn Station. It’s way bigger than that, unfortunately.

I do buy my broke friends stuff, mostly food, and I give money to causes like Fair Foods in Boston that I have a personal connection to and which I think address the immediate needs of poor immigrants and children.

Yours,

Aunt Pythia

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

## Ask Aunt Pythia – special Sunday edition

Guys, I messed up. I have been traveling two weeks in a row and I plumb forgot what day it was yesterday and thus, sadly, ignored my inner Aunt Pythia and her advice. I’m making up for it now, and I’m sending out major league apologies to people who were disappointed by the bullshit complaint about Indiana school politics yesterday instead of the sass you’ve grown to love from Auntie P.

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I completed a BA in economics a number of years ago (well before the economy went to heck-in-a-handbasket), but didn’t immediately pursue a graduate degree. Instead of focusing on my career, I dedicated myself to a charity project–building a community school in a very poor country–which took a lot of my time and financial resources. Now, the project is up and running on its own and I’m thinking again about career paths (in order to be able to fund bigger and better philanthropic works, if nothing else).

I’ve had the obvious thought of continuing my education with a MA or PhD program, but I’m not entirely convinced that doing so will actually improve my prospects for landing a plumb job. It will, on the other hand, be sure to cost me plenty of moola. What do you think: is going into debt in order to obtain an advanced degree a wise financial decision in this economic climate? If not, what other steps do you think would be helpful for an underemployed intellectual looking to move out of manual labor and into something more “white collar,” ideally without having to sell his/her soul?

Or maybe it’s just that are some of us just stuck down here on the lower rungs of the income distribution and had better just get used to it. That is what I tend to think, but I’ve been accused of pessimism before and thought maybe you might have something less depressing to suggest.

Feeling Out Obvious Limits

Dear FOOL,

I gotta say, I’m not sure. I’m not an expert on jobs in Econ. But I’ll tell you what, if it’s like math, it’s not kind to people who take time off. I think this is a huge mistake, and obviously one that affects women more than men. If math, as a community, were serious about attracting good women, they’d change this bias. But I don’t see that happening soon. Ditto with probability 90% for Econ.

Having said that, it sounds like what you’ve accomplished is real, and although it’s possibly invisible to certain academic communities, I’d bet it isn’t to others, like the business community. If you’re a quantitative person who’s build a working charity (amazing!), then you could probably convince someone to give you a good job.

How about you look into getting a masters degree in something you’re interested in that’s also quantitative, and then rebuild yourself as an experienced team-builder?

Good luck!

Aunt P

——

Dear Pythia,

A Platonic friend from undergrad analysis class and I were walking on the beach together one sunny day, several years ago. She suggested we take our shoes and socks off and wade in the water, which we did. When it came time to put our shoes back on, while deftly balancing on one foot like a flamingo, I dried off my free foot with a sock, put the sock on, then the shoe, then repeated the process for the other foot, all without a hitch. Whether real, or possibly feigned premeditatedly, my companion was exhibiting quite the struggle a few feet away. Perhaps because I am more attracted to skill and independence than incompetence and dependence, I just stood by and watched. Would you agree that this was the right thing to do, or am I in for a scolding instead?

Free Bird

Dear Free,

This is a great example of a question that says more about the questioner than anything about the question.

Putting that aside, and to answer your putative question: you have no obligation to help a grownup put on their socks. But you do have an obligation to forget about how a friend puts on their socks within at most 2 days, and you have a definite obligation to not judge them for their sock-putting-on-technique on a sandy beach. Plus, it wasn’t a way to get into your pants, if that’s what you mean.

Good luck,

Auntie P

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

If ‘D’ stands for ‘Dry’ and ‘G’ stands for ‘Got laid’, don’t you actually think that there would be some sort of stickiness (or state-dependence) coming in? I mean, I have the impression – maybe fallacious – that there is some sort of cold feet effect with getting laid: once you’ve entered the ‘dry’ state, your probability to remain in that state is actually increasing.

In other words, don’t you think that $Pr(D_t | D_{t-1})$ is actually increasing with $t$? How would you test for that?

There are several mechanisms behind that I think (and I will speak for myself here): it’s becoming more and more obvious that you’re sex-starved, and this is a big put-off, because that may be interpreted as being a lousy lover. You may also have less and less patience for the required chitchat before the physical fun etc.

The above may hold for males but not for females.

I’m not so sure about the other conditional probability $Pr(G_t | G_{t-1})$ mainly because I’ve little experience in staying very long in the ‘G’ state; but would be curious to know more about it.

Cheers,

Great points! And eminently modelable, which I appreciate, although the data collection would be a bitch, especially considering how much people lie about getting laid (see first answer here).

I don’t agree that the underlying effect doesn’t effect women though. The concept that “if I haven’t gotten laid in a long time my chances are actively going down” definitely seems true for many of my friends, male and female, and I don’t think it’s because they are perceived as lousy lovers.

After all, it’s not like there’s a ticker tape on their foreheads counting up the second since their last sexual encounter. Instead, I think it’s part pheromones and part self-regard. If you feel unattractive, you don’t act like a sexy thang and people are less likely to approach you.

Similarly, if you’ve gotten laid recently, you feel sexy, which makes you act like a sexy person, which is hot in itself, and also you have sex pheromones dripping off of you, which attracts the opposite sex like flies to a lightbulb.

By the way, if you’re a woman and you want a leg up on the process, may I suggest you buy synthetic female pheromones from the Athena Institute. Some of my friends swear by this, and claim it makes men desire them and/or be nice to them. Let’s say it this way: it either works or it works as a placebo.

One last thing: I think the community you live in makes a big difference for these dependent probabilities. If you have been dry for a long time but you have a good set of wingwomen or wingmen, then you’re way better off than if you’re isolated socially.

Good luck, Canada Dry! Go hang with your buddies and get them on board for your worthy cause!

Auntie P

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I spent my childhood as a lonely nerd with no friends. Over college and beyond I made friends and learned to have deep, meaningful relationships with people. Then I spent a few years working at a nonprofit, making the world a better place. I made a lot of money while helping to ease the pain associated with a number of types of cancer. And now I’m in my late 30s and rich.

I want to experience the shallow life that I see so many people around me enjoying but I have no idea how to do it. I’d try to buy my way in, but I don’t know where to begin. I’ve heard that girls go for guys with money, but don’t know where to find these girls.

Seriously, I need help being superficial for a while.

Want to be shallow

Dear WtbS,

Please let me be the first person to tell you that you’re already quite superficial. Congratulations!

Just the way you’re talking about “girls” makes me kind of gag, as if they’re lego parts that can be bought, traded, and sold. Plus you also sound crazy smug about your accomplishments, another strong signal for superficiality. So I honestly don’t think I need to give you any more advice on that front.

What I think you actually are wondering is how to be happy, or possibly happy in a hedonistic way. But the sneaky little thing about really enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle is, in my opinion, that you have real connections with the other people in your company. Otherwise you might just wake up feeling empty and crappy. It’s fun to do stupid sexy things with your friends if everyone’s into it, it’s not fun to do stupid sexy things with strangers whose motivations you don’t know, especially if you’re young and rich, because even if you don’t know, I will.

So my advice: go back to your college-aged talents and make deep connections with people who are also fun-loving and slightly crazy. It will take a few months but you might just be able to live like a fucking rock star.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

It’s a speed advice column today, folks, because I’m blogging whilst sitting at the PyData 2013 conference [Aside: I believe in Travis Oliphant, the nerd Santa Claus, do you?]. I’ll try to keep it to the point yet amusing slash provocative.

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

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m having a baby soon, and I’m planning to be the primary caregiver for a few months (from 3 months onward). I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get some research done at the same time, but I’m not sure how practical that is. What should I expect? Do you have any tips for juggling baby care and math research? (assuming no teaching and minimal responsibilities around the department.)

Dear BABY,

Other people are gonna tell you encouraging things like, “oh you can do it!” or “If anybody can do it, it’s you!” but not me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you you can’t do it, but by acting like it’s just a matter of proper planning, I’d be underselling how much work you’re signing up for, and how fucking hard it really is going to be.

So here’s the real deal: it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do (hopefully). You know how grad school was hard? This is like having to write a thesis once a year while living 24/7 with someone who’s only goal is for you to not get that done.

Which is to say: be incredibly proud of yourself every day you survive this period, and don’t add an ounce of guilt to yourself that you can avoid. Guilt doesn’t help. And also, the system is set up badly for you, to be sure, but don’t dwell on it too much, that also doesn’t help while you’re in it.

In terms of very practical advice: pay through the nose for good babysitting and daycare, it’s worth the investment so that you don’t have to worry your kid is getting love and attention. Go into debt, borrow money, or whatever, but get it set up so that you actually feel jealous of your kid, and specifically so you know your kid is better off with that situation for the next few hours than being with you.

Finally, when you feel crazy and insane and underproductive, know that it’ll get better, for sure, by the time the kids can wipe their own asses, and that you won’t regret having those beautiful children nor trying to get something else done too. Never apologize for needing to cry and vent about how hard this period is, and if you’re around people who don’t get it, find new people.

Good luck!

Cathy

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Aunt Pythia,

How do I dress to make people think I am an adult? I’m a 25-year-old woman, and I’m getting a bit tired of people asking me if I’m a student.

I think they ask me this because I only wear jeans and nerdy t-shirts. I basically only own jeans and nerdy t-shirts, plus some cardigans. I am not at all interested in skirts or girly things, but I’m open to wearing slightly nicer clothes. Like more cardigans? Messenger bags that aren’t falling apart? Urk.

People on the internet claim that I need to pluck my eyebrows to be taken seriously, but fuck that shit.

Shopping Is Hard! Let’s Do Math

Dear Sihldm,

First, I gotta say I was expecting a bit more from that sign-off. I really don’t see what “Sihldm” is supposed to mean, but maybe I’m just out of the loop.

Second, I’m gonna say something kind of controversial. Namely, I think the single attribute that makes people take me seriously is the fact that I’m overweight (and that, nowadays, I have grey hair, which also helps).

I think people just stop thinking “girl” and start thinking “woman” when confronted with me, and that totally works to my advantage. Controversial because, according to the social contract, I’m supposed to feel consistently bad about my weight, but here’s an example where I’m like, wow I’ve never been underestimated as a “girl”.

So, my advice to you is: pack on like 100 pounds.

Just kidding, probably not a great plan, nor possible.

Here’s another try: whenever you’re giving a talk or starting a class, wear wool slacks and a sweater. For whatever reason people take you super seriously when you do, even if you’re not fat, and even if you’re short. If it’s summer, go for summer slacks and silk shirts, although not the kind of silk that shows sweat stains easily, those are embarrassing.

And if it’s not a special event like a talk or the first day of class, then fuck it, be yourself.

Good luck!

Cathy

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

My husband stays home with the children, but in spite of a graduate degree in engineering and graduate work in mathematics, seems incapable of maintaining a clean house.

My question is, if 95% of the time he doesn’t sort the mail, 75% of the time he doesn’t vacuum, 50% of the time he doesn’t wash the dishes, and 80% of the time he doesn’t wipe the kitchen counters, what is the probability that he doesn’t actually see dirt? (He is color blind.)

Buried in junk mail

Dear Bijm,

Bijm? Really?

Are the kids healthy? Happy? Do they get fed non-dorito-like food? I’d say be grateful. If and when you can afford it get housekeeping, but don’t make the mistake I see so much of allowing resentment to build up over chores.

Also, keep in mind that the kids will be able to help with the chores soon. And by “soon” I mean “probably already”. Buy cute toy-like vacuum cleaners and make up a game about getting all the dirt. Make it part of the dessert ritual that the counters need to be clean first. Move your bills to online payments.

And enjoy your sexy househusband!! [Important aside: is he willing to wear an apron and nothing else when he cooks? Please answer privately, preferably with jpeg-formatted evidence.]

Aunt Pythia

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia is back and, since her family has finally been reunited, sleeping well. Thank goodness! Hallelujah!

I’m psyched to be getting some great questions from the math community. If you’re a math nerd, and even if you’re not, please:

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

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve been thinking a lot about your remark from this previous post:

Like a lot of academics, he understands ambition in one narrow field, and doesn’t even relate to not wanting to be successful in this realm

That has really resonated with me. I am trying to make it as an academic, and I admit I am super boring because all I really care about is math and exercise, and I’m not really smart enough or care enough to have an informed opinion of much else.

Unfortunately this makes it hard to attract women, and the ones I have gone out on dates with said that I am not very engaging. On top of that most women want children, and I have read (and agree with) your post on why wanting children is ridiculous. I am also not located in a region where I have any colleagues or even graduate students working in my area of math to talk math with and so I feel pretty isolated in so many levels.

What does it take to become a math professor at an ivy league caliber institution (e.g. Harvard, MIT Columbia, Princeton)? Does one have to be working/thinking about math for much of one’s day? I presume you have an inside view.

Math is Titillating

Dear MiT,

First of all thanks for bringing up that previous answer. I have gotten a lot of people writing in saying I misinterpreted his description of taking extra time to finish his Ph.D.; most people generally think he only took one extra year whereas I read it as two extra years, which makes a big difference. Given this, I was probably too harsh on the guy, although I still think grad students should go to seminars.

As an aside, when did we start using “last year” to mean “this year” and “next year” to mean “next year” but stopped using “this year” to mean anything?

Now on to your question. Do you have to be thinking about math all the time to get a great job? Probably. There are exceptions but they’re rare, as you know.

Let’s face it, this wasn’t really a question for Aunt Pythia. I think you just identified with the description of being boring and only caring about getting a fancy math job, since that’s all you actually care about, as evidenced by your question.

But hey, I’m Aunt Pythia, so I’ve got advice for you anyway.

Don’t feel bad about it! It’s just how you’re programmed, it’s fine. You love math and not much else! Shout it loud from the rooftops and you might just find a girl nerd who’s psyched with your boring self. Just please don’t expect everyone else to be like you, especially your graduate students.

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a math professor in a bit of an ethical quandary.

There is a researcher in my field who is widely known (by those in the field) to be a Certified Asshole (CA). He cuts down other people and their work, often in underhanded and awful ways. The people in question are often women (but not always) and often young (grad students or postdocs). He is a tenured full prof at a Very Good School, though, so those who don’t know him respect the position and his publication record. They consider him to be a Serious Person instead of the CA that he is.

In our recent round of hiring, I read the packet of a very talented graduating student who is applying for postdocs. This student has a few publications already including one very, very nice result. He is also a current collaborator of mine, and I know him a bit personally.

The letter in the student’s application from CA (another collaborator of the student) is underhanded and sabotaging. It says nothing outright negative, of course, but has key phrases like “promising teaching career at a liberal arts school” or somesuch. It also manages to be self-aggrandizing about CA himself rather than praising the grad student and his work.

This student did not get any offers this year, and I know he will be on the market again this year. I can’t help thinking that this letter is hurting his chances for a research postdoc. CA is not his advisor. While it would help to have a good letter from a person in a position such as CA’s, I don’t think this particular letter is helping him.

I can’t figure out an ethical way to help the student. I can’t come out and tell him what’s in the letter. I can’t really say anything even alluding to that. Is there anything I can do to help him?

Better yet, is there anything I can do to hurt CA even though I am in a more junior position at a less well-respected school?

Math is Awesome, People Suck

Dear MAPS,

What a rich question! There are so many issues here, I do believe we could start an entire blog addressing just this ethical quandary, worked out in its entirety.

First of all, I agree that there is an ethical quandary, mostly because you read the CA letter.

If you’d told your friend not to get a letter from the CA beforehand, because he’s a known shitty letter writer, I think that would have been fine and not unethical. But given that you didn’t, and that your friend got that letter, and that you read the letter, it would now seem like spying to go back and tell your friend to get a new letter in the next round. After all, if you’d read the letter and it was great, then you wouldn’t be telling your friend to go get a new letter writer.

As an aside, it doesn’t make sense to me that, during the hiring process, people read the folders of their current collaborators – doesn’t that seem ripe for this kind of conflict of interest?

Now just a few words on “shitty letter writers” before we go on to actual advice. There are different kinds of shitty letter writers, which I’ll split into two broad categories: the tough letter writer, who has consistently high standards and doesn’t wax poetic about anyone ever, and the narcissistic letter writer, who is inconsistent with their praise, sometimes cold sometimes hot, depending on idiosyncratic things like whether they like the young person’s personality and whether they’ve seen enough citations to the narcissist’s own work.

In the large and relatively functional system that is recommendation letters for math jobs, the tough letter writer is a pretty familiar concept, and the system has adapted more or less to its existence. In other words, people who read a lot of letters in a lot of folders get to know the letter writers and they say stuff to themselves along the lines of, oh this guy never writes good letters, so given that, this letter is actually pretty good!

Of course that’s not to say that it’s a perfect system of adaptation to such tough letter writing biases: for sure there are hiring committees unfamiliar with those letter writers, and for those students who have those tough letters, they inevitably suffer in such situations.

On the other hand, if you tried to explicitly adjust this problem, you could be inviting other, even bigger problems. For example, if you had a public yet anonymous webpage which scored every letter writer on a scale of toughness, then the young people looking for jobs might feel like to compete, they’d need to only get letters from people who always write good letters (they exist), and then the entire system would fail because the letters would contain less and less information. That would be a problem.

OK, what about the narcissist letter writer? That’s harder, since they’re not consistently tough, but rather they’re tough on people they just don’t like for whatever reason. It’s much much harder for people on hiring committees to spot the narcissists, and thus those narcissists probably do lots of damage. Luckily they’re also less common then the tough letter writers, but of course they exist.

I’d like to respond to your last question, about wanting to hurt CA, who I’m guessing is a narcissist letter writer, and even though the question is posed strangely.

I don’t think it’s unethical, when you’re counseling any person in your field from now on, to explicitly suggest not using that guy, or for that matter any narcissist letter writer. Of course, this is before you’ve read the putative letter, and of course the person might think you’re wrong and might ignore your advice (and of course, you might be wrong).

My advice to you about the person who didn’t get a job this year (note usage of “this year”): make sure they’re aware of how much letters count, and how different writers are known for different styles, and tell them to consider getting new letters. Ask them to explicitly ask their letter writers whether their letters are good, and define “good”, something I always counsel people to do when they ask for letters.  I don’t think you can do much more than this.

But I’m eager to hear what Jason Starr thinks, he’s always very thoughtful!

Best,

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

You write an amazing blog that

• lets your readership get to know you as a person and
• showcases your interests and expertise without
• too much compartmentalizing.

Help a sister out with some advice for how to achieve similar results?

Bridging Lives Online Gets Gnarly Yo

Dear BLOGGY,

• Set aside time every day to write. Consistency is your friend.
• Choose a (possibly imaginary) friend of yours each day to write to – your audience – that is on your side but will also ask clarifying questions, and explain something to them that you find interesting. That’s a blog post!
• Also, explain one idea well, then stop. People can barely stand one idea before losing interest.

Good luck, I know you’re gonna rock it!!!

Love,

Auntie P

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