Archive for the ‘Aunt Pythia’ Category

Aunt Pythia’s advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

please please please

ask Aunt Pythia a question at the bottom of the page!

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

Missing Person

Dear Missing Person,

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

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

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

There is nothing truly mathematical about this, sadly.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First of all, awesome sign off.

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

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

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

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

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

Or you could just hang out with other folks.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

Curious Sub

Dear Curious,

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

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

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

Auntie P


Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

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

Many Thanks,
Mr. Should be studying for finals

Dear Mr. Should,

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Pythia


Well, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied! If you could, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Didja miss Aunt Pythia? Because Auntie P sure as heck missed you all, over there in Utrecht, Holland, where all the food was fried and all the time was family time.

But! But! Aunt Pythia did not fritter away opportunities to do ground-breaking sex columnist research for your benefit. Oh no, absolutely not. In fact, Aunt Pythia has three – count them, three! – important things to share with you.

First, a book. It’s called How To Build A Girl, and everyone reading this should stop what they’re doing and go buy it and read it right now. Honestly, it’s one of the funniest coming of age stories I’ve ever read, and it’s about a girl! So exciting! Aunt Pythia lovers in particular will love it, because there’s lots of masturbation in it. Not enough, in my personal opinion, but a fabulous start. Hopefully the new trend in feminist autobiographies.

Second, this list of things that turn women on. Summary: almost everything except flaccid penises and Axe Body Spray. It’s not really a good list, but I get turned on by lists of things that turn people on, so I just threw it in anyway.

Third and finally, the most amazing technological invention ever, especially considering my addiction to Candy Crush! Namely, a combination kegel exercise machine, vibrator, and video game controller:

Ladies, it's time to do your kegels. OK you can stop now. No, really.

Ladies, it’s time to do your kegels. OK you can stop now. No, really.

Not really sure how this wasn’t invented as soon as people understood batteries, but whatevs, we’ve got it now.

OK, so are you ready for some amazing advice? Aunt Pythia is prepared to give legendary advice today, so buckle up tight. And 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,

So I’ve been reading a math blog online, and like every other math blog I read, it provides fun descriptions of cool math, targeted at math people, without needless symbols or jargon. This is awesome.

Anyway, the author of this blog posted a picture of herself in one of the posts; it turns out, the author was an African-American female. When I saw the picture, I was pretty surprised. After I realized I was surprised, I was immediately ashamed. Why should it be a surprise that an African-American female runs a math blog post? By being surprised, I felt that I was contributing to the implicit white-male bias in math. (By the way, I’m society’s image of “normal”: a cisgender hetero white male.)

But that’s the thing; I’m *not* prejudiced, and I’ve thought about this. Having attended Mathpath, HCSSiM (2011), and Canada/USA Mathcamp, I’m totally used to there being extremely competent and smart women and members of racial minorities in mathematics. (I’m writing a letter to one such person!) In my undergraduate experience, the women in my classes have been just as competent as men. I have thought about how I behave, and I don’t talk down to female professors or nonwhite students. Partly nature, but also partly because of my high school experience.

I understand that there’s a problem with a lack of mathematicians who are not white males, and I understand that I probably assumed that the author of this blog (from above) was a white male simply because statistically, there’s an extremely high probability that being a math person, they were a white male. In my head, this makes that feeling of surprise seem like a symptom of the problem, rather than a part of its cause.

But I still keep thinking to myself that maybe I’m secretly prejudiced and I’m contributing to the problem. I can’t really shake that feeling, despite knowing in my head what’s really the case, as described above. And I’m kinda scared about that. What should I do?

Anxious Math Junior

Dear AMJ,

Yes, you are prejudiced! We all are! I am too! It’s an important part of growing up, admitting such things. We are flawed, and we are contributing to the problems of our culture. Fact.

Now, as to what you should do, I’m thinking the first step is admitting that you’re prejudiced. You’ve come almost all the way on this one, but it’s clearly difficult for you to step firmly up to the plate. Go for it! And keep in mind that you’re joining a whole bunch of well-meaning people once you do.

Next, make sure that other people join you on that plate. Talk about this experience you’ve had, and how it made you acknowledge a part of you you’d rather not exist, but out of sheer decency and self-reflection you have to admit does. Get other young men and women in STEM to talk about all the fine and competent people in math and how great math – or indeed, any intellectual endeavor – could be if people were just taken as they are, people learning and arguing and exchanging ideas and making discoveries.

Finally, be on the lookout for behavior or practices that expose, continue, or expand stupid prejudices. Call people on such behavior. Be outspoken and cool. Send your young friends to HCSSiM and other places that you think are good places to learn how to be thoughtful about this stuff.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia.

A while back, you wrote about how you say and/or feel that you have crush on someone very often, and how this is something fun and playful for you. So maybe you can help me.

My problem is that I fall in love with practically every man that I like and that seems to like me back. For this reason, I have zero male friends. When I start to like a guy, notice that I get a long well with him, I always also have a reaction of weak knees/getting nervous around them etc., which at some point I also realize they notice, at least on a subliminal level, which leads to some kind of “flirting” behaviour (I put it in quotation marks because I am really not flirting on purpose, I just behave a bit awkwardly and sometimes guys behave back in the same kind of awkward way and so the situation feels charged. It is hard to describe but maybe you know what I mean).

I am in a long-term relationship that I enjoy and that I do not want to give up, so it is not that I am actually looking for a new love. I would however really like to have male friends because I would sometimes like to hear a male viewpoint regarding things I think about which is not my boyfriend’s or father’s.

But the only options I seem to have is either (i) avoid the guy and thus (again) contribute to the sad fact that I have zero male friends or (ii) get to know him better and risk some form of emotional chaos that scares me, like developing a more serious crush.

Of course, I would never choose option (i) if the guy is single and seems interested as I do not want to lead somebody on. But if the guy is also in a relationship, and has not expressed romantic interest in me, but just general interest (maybe in a friendship with me — but maybe also for something else, hard to say often), what do I do then? Is there a chance to develop a crush into a friendship? How do you do that?

It feels morally ambiguous to me to try to seek this guy’s company in those cases, like sitting next to him when I have the option, and so I don’t do it and the potential friendship cannot develop. 

I feel like you might know how to deal with this problem, so that is why I am asking you, and unfortunately I cannot discuss this problem with my female friends (I have tried once or twice but nobody seems to have any idea what the hell I am talking about, since they claim to fall in love so rarely that it happens once or twice in their life.)

Of course, another idea would also be that maybe my boyfriend and I have a serious problem, otherwise those crushes wouldn’t happen to me, but I don’t think so.

Thoughts? How can I break this pattern?

Many thanks! (Sorry for the bad acronym and the long text! :))

Cannot Remain Unemotional — So Hide?


First thing’s first, great sign-off. I do NOT mind a bit of tortured punctuation in the name of appropriate acronyms! Nobody would ever accuse me of that!!

OK, now on to your fantastic question. I love it, and I honestly have an immediate crush on you for being so honest about it. I do have a bunch of advice for you as well.

First, listen to emo music. Seriously, there is sanctuary in emotional music. My favorite band for such purposes is Bright Eyes, Fevers and Mirrors (obv), as many of my closest friends will attest to. I listened to it non-stop for an entire year when I first discovered Bright Eyes, and this was in 2002, when I was pregnant with my second kid. So don’t think this stuff ever goes away, either, you will need coping mechanisms your entire life, so get started!

And if Bright Eyes doesn’t suit you – which would be weird – then go ahead and find something else. But definitely have a place to retreat to when things get super emotional.

OK, next piece of advice, which I think you’re anticipating: go ahead and have the crush. It won’t kill you. In fact it will (eventually) make you stronger, even if it takes a few months of pining and incredibly amounts of emo music to deal with.

Because here’s the thing, you’ve got to be brave. You’ve got to live your life fully, and engage in the things that attract you, and trust yourself not to lose it entirely. You’ve really got no other options. Otherwise you’re retreating away from the only thing you really have, which is this one life. Fuck that! Go ahead and take some risks, and sit next to that man or woman who might temporarily throw you for an emotional loop with their perfect wit and amazing smile.

And no, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just wired differently from other people (but not me, I’m just like you). You fall in love with everyone, all the time, and that means you experience more. It’s cool! We’re lucky! And eventually you will of course become friends with people who you originally crushed out on, and sometimes you won’t, but it’s worth a try.

Here’s a little secret that a very good friend told me: almost nobody gets sexier when you get to know them better. People are at their very sexiest when you know about 10 minutes about them, scattered over a few weeks or months. They put on the charm, they seem to listen and laugh at your jokes. It’s after 10 years of real conversations that you get to know people really well, well enough to see into their inner zits.

Which is to say, by getting to know these people more, by sitting next to that yummy guy when you have the chance, the problems you are dealing with will generally fade, not increase. And for those very rare few who actually become sexier when you get to know them better, well they deserve your crush so it’s all good.

Ha! I made it sounds pretty good, right? Remember, when you’re an emo, it’s all about enjoying the pain. I’m not called the Queen of Yearning for nothing.

As for your relationship, I don’t think you’re more likely to fuck it up by letting these crushes happen than by trying to suppress them. Suppression does weird things. I also don’t think you’re more likely to fuck up your relationship than people who only fall in love rarely. Personally I re-fall in love with my husband pretty much weekly, which might bore him but it’s absolutely awesome for me.

Good luck!!

Auntie P

p.s. May I suggest that you just go ahead and actively, deliberately flirt? First of all because it’s fun to flirt, and secondly because it might give you a sense of control of the situation, which you don’t currently have?

p.p.s. Also, here’s a suggestion for how you can do everything I’ve suggested all at once: you sit down next to that yummy guy and you say, “How’s about we flirt for a while, to acknowledge the sexual tension between us, and then after a memorably conversation, we lay down the foundations of a lasting friendship? I’ll start. You look amazing in that sweater.” I have found that being incredibly honest about my intentions sometimes helps. Also sometimes backfires, but whatevs! It’s a crazy mixed-up world!!


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Has anyone accused you of being a sex tourist for visiting Haiti? I’m just curious because as a single male there is practically nowhere that I could go by myself or with a buddy without accusations of sex tourism, especially Hispaniola. Nobody seems to care when women go to Haiti or Jamaica despite those places being well known for catering to ALL of a woman’s needs. This double standard reeks of cartel tactics. I personally believe that prostitution should be legal but regulated.


Dear Globetrotter,

Nobody has. Most white women in Haiti are there for charity or on religious missions. I’m sure there is sex tourism there but it’s not on a huge scale.

Question for you: who accuses you of being a sex tourist? How does that come up?

Also, in terms of legalized prostitution, I don’t agree. I like that Dutch prostitutes have a union, but in places like Haiti I think legalized prostitution is one step away from paying people for their body parts. It’s not really a “chosen profession” if you are forced by dire need to do it. My two cents.

Aunt Pythia


Dear AP,

Should women compete in men’s sports? I’m thinking of games that are highly skill and determination driven (so there doesn’t seem an inherent bias for taller or stronger players) but where top female players are at a lower standard to the top male players.

Is it better or worse for women to have segregated leagues and competitions in these sports?

Always Separate but Equal?

Dear ASbE,

What sports are we talking about exactly? Most sports I know about have huge biases for strength. Even darts, which I watched copious amounts of in Utrecht (2014 World Darts Championship! Fuck yeah Michael van Gerwen!!), seems to favor huge men, maybe not for their strength per se but for their balance and inertia. Or maybe it’s all that time spent in pubs drinking beer.

I also watched an amazing round of the Dutch version of WipeOut, which was brilliantly combined with a blind date TV show, and I was amazed by how much easier it seems to be to jump from one floating disc to another if you’re a tall Dutch man than if you’re a tall Dutch woman. The winning couple was a charming pair named “Hippy” and “Hoppy”. They won because Hippy was willing to use his body as a prop to help out his partner. All the other couples had the men springing ahead and leaving their female partners behind. Let that be a lesson to all you non-hippies out there. Be more of a Hippy.

Not sure I’m answering your question, ASbE, but let me throw in one more unrelated opinion because I’m on a roll. Namely, American football is quickly becoming a sport to which poor minority men sacrifice their bodies. Richer and more educated parents don’t let their kids play the sport, and as we now know it’s incredibly traumatic for the players. We might as well just admit it’s a modern day Gladiator Contest, used to maintain a culture of violence for a people convinced they must be warriors, or at least that others should be. Instead of letting women play football, let’s just stop anyone at all from playing it, at least as it is currently being played.


Aunt Pythia


Well, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied! If you could, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Here’s the thing, peoples. I love you – I really do, each and every one of you, except the douchey trolls – but, holy crap, peoples!

Where are the sex questions?!

Have I been unclear? Have I been beating around the sex question bush?

I think not. I think I have been more than forthright in my request demand. And, since none – I repeat, zero – of the questions this week are in the least sex-related, I’m going to have to insert something kind of awesome myself, namely this picture of a bouncey house snowman’s vagina. Remember, you made me do it:

They originally had a cylindrical tent attachment for kids to enter, but they thought twice.

They originally planned a cylindrical tent attachment entrance for the bouncy house, but they thought twice.

Question: is that what you needed to see so early on Saturday morning, before you’d even put on clothes (I’m picturing you all naked or very slightly pajama’d) and before you’ve even finished your morning coffee (and I’m also picturing you all kind of sleepy)?

I think not! So let’s all do better next time, and we can avoid this awkwardness in the future. What that means in concrete terms is a request to:

ask Aunt Pythia your sex 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.


Hi Aunt Pythia,

I love your blog and Slate Money Podcast and can think of few people better to share my early life crisis with.

I recently quit my consulting job in San Francisco to move back in with my parents for a year at 29 years young (how sexy is that) and take a few pre-requisite math classes while I study for the GRE in preparation for what I had planned to be admission into a dual MBA/MPP program. Except, something unexpected has happened, I’m finding myself enjoying mathematics for the first time in my life and it has me interested in pursuing something more quantitative than most MBA/MPP programs offer.

I’ve never been a math superstar, but I earned A’s and B’s at a UC in the math courses I was forced to take as a liberal arts major. I have a strong interest in learning how to solve problems and make sense of the world around me. And I’m beginning to see that math, as opposed to economics or finance, may be the best tool for doing so.

I spoke with a professor at the junior college I’m taking these math courses at and she suggested looking into an Applied Math program that would let me get exposure to everything from math, statistics, physics, computer science, and economics to different forms of engineering and finance. Her other suggestion was to remain enrolled at the junior college, complete their calculus sequence, real analysis/linear algebra, and other math electives that would allow me to apply to both undergraduate and graduate level math programs a year or so from now with a few more math classes on my transcript.

I took a look at a few applied math program curriculums and the courses look a lot more interesting than the marketing, strategy, accounting and finance I’d be stuck in at an MBA program.

But there’s a problem… being fascinated and interested by a math curriculum is great, working to gain the the skills necessary to handle those fascinating courses is the hard part.

Which leads me to my question (sorry for the wait): Do you know of any liberal arts undergraduates that have transformed themselves into successful Math or STEM related graduate students? Are their programs for students in my situation? Is this even a possibility? I’m not expecting to be the model candidate for MIT’s program but is their a path to an applied math program at a decent public/private school for someone in my position? Are there other programs outside of Applied Math that might better suit my math curiosity? Any books I could pick up at the library to help me figure out what may best interest me mathematically?

Keep up the good work and thank you for your math help!


Hi Boomerang,

I liked your letter, and I decided to print it, but to be honest I’m not convinced I know how to answer your question. I’ll just say a bunch of things that I hope will be helpful, and then I’ll sign off with some positive last words. Maybe my dear Aunt Pythia readers will have more concrete suggestions! Here goes:

First of all, I’m not familiar with people who have done what you’re trying to do after finishing college. I have met people who’ve gone back to finish a 4-year college program, got interested in math in the last year, and then furiously took a bunch of math classes. I even know someone who went to grad school in math after that. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just that it’s on the late side.

I also think the advice you’ve already received is good. Basically, take the fuck out of the available math classes and learn some good shit. Find out what your taste is and be an insatiable consumer of math. It’s all out there, waiting to be gobbled up by you. And to be honest, it’s never been a better time to learn math, the resources, online and otherwise, are phenomenal.

So I want to encourage your math habit, obviously, but at the same time, I do want to stress that any program in which you’re expected to learn and understand how to solve problems will or at least should involve math. Math is a field in its own right, of course, which I hope you find your way into if that’s your thing, but it’s also the major heavy lifting tool for all other fields. That’s just to say that, being a math nerd in an MBA program is still a good and useful thing, especially if you’re not an MBA asshole.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Is it possible to get over a crush and maintain a platonic relationship?

At the end of the last school year, I developed a crush on a substitute teacher at the school where I’ve taught for 7 years. I’ve been married and monogamous for 23 years, and this is the strongest crush I’ve had in that time – lascivious thoughts and everything (thoughts only). Over the summer, I did some soul searching, and decided that even if I did connect with my crush (it was by no means clear that I would or could), it would be an incredible act of selfishness on my part and wouldn’t get me much in the long run. In fact, it was clear that I’d lose a lot that I value greatly: my marriage, the respect of my coworkers, my kids, my wider family, etc.

Since then, my crush has been hired to the regular staff at my school, and we have become close friends. I have decided that I am not available romantically, and have rededicated myself to my marriage. I am closer to my wife than we have been in a long time (I had been “phoning it in” for a long time – I am now more present in our marriage).

My new friend has confided in me that she and her children were abused in her previous marriage. I intend to be a “safe male” in her life – someone available to listen and support her while she gets her life back together, but I will not seek a romantic relationship.

Is this even possible? Likely?

A Male In Denial Or Obviously Making Everything Difficult?


Gosh, I love your sign-off, and I love you. You just seem like a wonderful man.

Here’s the thing, some people are amazing and awesome and just plain old crush-worthy. And this is a good thing. An amazing thing, in fact, and handy. Think of adult crushes as a way for your body to force you to make friends with people when you’re busy.

You see, when you’re young, you just have this boatload of time to spend with people, and do ridiculous things like try to hide large objects in your stomach skin (I’m looking at you, Matt Cook), which overall serves as the bonding activity for life-long friendships. It’s amazing and wonderful, and when you finish college you feel like a like-long friendship pro.

You will never have as many friends again, however. Because soon after college ends, the harsh reality of adulthood sets in, and you often gain a spouse if you’re luck and into that, a couple of kids if you’re interested in that kind of thing, and a pile of responsibilities and time-consuming duties that keep you from spending ridiculous amounts of idle time bonding with random people. In other words, you’re at risk of never making another friend again.

Enter the adult crush. It’s a quick-bonding mechanism. Think of it as the super glue of post-college friendship. It can happen for men or women, to men or women, it doesn’t have to be romantic, and it supplies you with enough interest in the other person to care about maintaining a lasting and meaningful relationship. A rare event in these busy times!

So, to answer your question, no, you will never get over your crush, at least not if you’re lucky, and I think you’re amazing and awesome, and so does your family, and so does your new friend, and honestly she needs a good friend so good on you, and it’s all good.

And if I seem like I am enjoying your conflicted agony, then let me suggest it’s actually a huge improvement over not having it. So do your best to enjoy it. And don’t forget to have amazing fantasies.

Auntie P


Hi Auntie P

Two quick questions for you

1. Should I use dropbox?
2. How should I de-clutter my computer?

A bit of context, maybe. My private computers are full of stuff. We have 2-3 laptops and 4-5 back up disk which are all full of stuff.

Of course, it’s my own fault. Most of it is just old back up of my computer (so there is a lot of overlap), but I don’t (feel like I) keep a lot of stuff. Mostly music and pictures of my kids. Only I tend to listen to a lot of music and we have a lot of kids (so 2 private laptops and one iPad is actually not all that much). And as much as I like to de-clutter and get rid of stuff – on my computer or otherwise – I do wanna keep those. And I can do it too: my work computer is always completely empty. Since my private computers are so old, they don’t function well with that much stuff. I’d like to put my stuff on dropbox but then I’m not sure, you know with all the data stuff and all. More specifically:

1. I don’t know if I should really share my data – is there really a risk with my kids pictures and my music?

2. Is there a chance that dropbox actually gets hacked or collapses and my data disappears?

And of course, being a well structured efficiency nerd, (have you seen xkcd #1445? that’s me), and you being you, this brings up another topic: how should I go about organizing my stuff on my computer? I really like structured approaches to de-cluttering my life (thank you Gretchen Rubin) as long as they are practical and work. And you’re quite practical and you work. So I thought I might ask you.

Looking Forward to Saturday

Dear LFtS,

This is a non-problem. Data gets cheaper all the time and you never need to organize anything.

I’m sure there’s an app that collects all your music and picture files and makes scrapbooks for you. So don’t think about that for a moment longer. In terms of storage, if you’re worried about being hacked, which I wouldn’t be but don’t listen to me, then buy a couple of modern large hard disks and copy everything onto them. I say “a couple” because you should have more than one copy in case one breaks. Then after you have done that, throw away the 5 backup disks and 3 laptops you’re keeping around as inefficient storage devices.

Also, you can probably stop storing music altogether, unless you like Unbunny like I do, which is hard to stream. No, I take it back, it’s easy to find Unbunny everywhere. Phew.

Aunt Pythia

p.s. What’s happening Saturday? I hope you don’t mean my crappy answer to your question.


Aunt Pythia,

I’m a Junior studying Math, but I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve told myself I like Math since Junior year of high school when I learned Calculus. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head. I thought, “finally, this is what its uses are!” And I found it beautiful. So beautiful I was ahead of the class for the last half of it. I couldn’t wait to go back home and teach myself more of it. That passion has gone away.

I tell myself I like Math. It’s why I majored in it. But I don’t like working most of the time. There are times when I do enjoy dedicating hours to a class, like when I prove the propositions left as exercises in lecture. It’s thrilling. But most of the time, it’s hard for me to get out of bed and go to class, or sit down and do the work.

I feel like I’ve squandered two and half years on a Math degree my school paid for, and my parents, potential employers, and myself won’t value because I’m barely able to put my GPA on my resume. As a Hispanic, I’m acutely aware of how little of us are STEM majors. If I walk into a class, I will be the only URM there. And because I’m lucky enough to have grown up in an upper middle class neighborhood, I feel like I’m doing a disservice to my people. For myself, it’s more frustrating because I have an interest in Data Science, but from what I’ve gathered, graduate school probably isn’t for me.

I don’t know why I feel like this. Is it because I’m lazy? Is it because I’m privileged and have never been challenged? Is Math not for me? Am I depressed? I guess the big question is, how should I figure these questions out?

Anxious Math Junior

Dear Anxious,

I’m feeling your pain. You feel stuck. It’s not uncommon and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. Plus, it sounds like you are carrying extra weight on your shoulders.

So, the first step, in my opinion, is to get rid of that extra weight. You are not living The Life Of The Upper Middle Class Latino. You are living your own, personal, never-to-be-repeated life, and you gotta figure out how you want to live it. And you’re still a junior and you can switch majors and still graduate, so don’t worry that things are too late.

Let me suggest you go to a counselor at your school and tell them you want to discuss changing majors. There are, for example, personality tests that people sometimes find very helpful in helping them figure out what to do with their lives. Two of my close family members have been aided by such tests. Sometimes they clarify something you already kind of know, other times they really point you to something you didn’t even know was an option. In any case, not a waste of time, and I encourage you to look into them.

And by the way, it’s a great sign that you once were passionate about calculus. You have the talent and ability to master a difficult subject when the moment is right. The goal is to figure out how to create those moments and see where they will take you.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Well, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied! If you could, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia has something in the works for you dear people, but it’s not quite ready yet, and you’ll have to wait another week. Rest assured, it will be worth it. And apologies to subscribers who received an errant test post this week.

In the meantime, Aunt Pythia is going to write a quick column today from a Montreal hotel room after an amazing workshop yesterday which she will comment on later in the week.

So quick, get some tea and some flannel-lined flannel, because damn it’s wintery outside, all snowy and shit. Aunt Pythia’s about to spew her usual unreasonable nonsense!

This week in Montreal. From

From earlier this week in Montreal. 

LET’S DO THIS PEOPLES!!! And please, even if you’ve got nothing interesting to say for yourself, feel free to make something up or get inspired by Google auto complete and then go ahead and:

ask Aunt Pythia your 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,

This may not really be an “Aunt Pythia” question. But could either you or Mathbabe comment on this article on sexism in academic science?

I can imagine many ways they could be misrepresenting the statistics, but I don’t know which.

No Bias, Really?

Dear No Bias,

I was also struck by the inflammatory tone and questionable conclusions of this article. But you know, controversy sells.

So, here are a couple of lines I’ll pull out. First:

Our country desperately needs more talented people in these fields; recruiting more women could address this issue. But the unwelcoming image of the sexist academy isn’t helping. Fortunately, as we have found in a thorough analysis of recent data on women in the academic workplace, it isn’t accurate, either.

And second:

Many of the common, negative depictions of the plight of academic women are based on experiences of older women and data from before the 2000s, and often before the 1990s. That’s not to say that mistreatment doesn’t still occur — but when it does, it is largely anecdotal, or else overgeneralized from small studies.

I guess right off the bat I’d ask, how are you collecting data? The data I have personally about sexist treatment at the hands of my colleagues hasn’t, to my knowledge, been put in any database. The sexist treatment I’ve witnessed for pretty much all of my female mathematics colleagues has, equally, never been installed in a database to my knowledge. So yeah, not convinced these people know what they are talking about. It’s famously hard to prove something doesn’t exist, especially when you don’t have a search algorithm.

One possibility for the data they seem to have: they interviewed people after the fact, perhaps decades after the fact. If that’s the case, then you’d expect more and better data on older women, and that’s what we are currently seeing. There is a lag on this data collection, in other words. That’s not the same as “it doesn’t exist.” A common mistake researchers make. They take the data as “objective truth” and forget that it’s a human process to collect it (or not collect it!). Think police shootings.

The article then goes on to talk about how the data for women in math and other science fields isn’t so bad in terms of retention, promotion, and other issues. For there I’d say, the women have already gone through a mighty selection process, so in general you’d expect them to be smarter than their colleagues, so in general their promotion rates should be higher, but they aren’t. So that’s also a sign of sexism.

I mean, whatever. That’s not actually what I claim is true, so much as another interpretation of this data. My overall point is that, they have some data, and they are making strong and somewhat outrageous claims which I can dismiss without much work.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

In his November “Launchings” column, David Bressoud has presents some interesting data on differences between male and female college calculus students. As much as I’ve appreciated all of Bressoud’s careful explorations of mathematics education, I find I’m a bit irritated by his title, “MAA Calculus Study: Women Are Different,” because it appears to take the male experience as the norm.

Perhaps I was already annoyed because of a NYTimes op-ed, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist”, in which Wendy Williams and Steven Ceci claim that “[w]e are not your father’s academy anymore,” and that the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive fields is “rooted in women’s earlier educational choices, and in women’s occupational and lifestyle preferences.” Here, too, the message seems to be “don’t worry about changing the academy — women are different from the norm, which is (naturally) that which works for men.”

My question for you, Aunt Pythia, is this: am I overreacting here?

I received my PhD in mathematics in 1984, and I’ve seen significant change for the better in the academy since then. Child care at AMS meetings? A crowd in the women’s rest room at same? Unthinkable when I started. But if women are still disproportionately “choosing” to go into other fields, might we look a little more closely at the environments in which girls and women are making their educational and “lifestyle” choices?

I welcome your thoughts. If you’re eager for more data analysis, I’d also love to hear your take on the paper by Williams, Ceci, and their colleagues.

Still One of the Underrepresented After All These Years


Without even reading that article, I can say without hesitation that yes, it’s a ridiculous title, and it’s infuriating and YOU ARE NOT OVERREACTING. To be clear, that is bold-faced, italicized, and all caps. I mean it.

The word “different” forces us to compare something to a baseline, and given that there is no baseline even mentioned, we are forced to guess at it, and that imposes the “man as default” mindset. Fuck that. I mean, if the title had been, “There are differences between male and female calculus students,” I would not have been annoyed, because even though “male” comes first, I’m not a stickler. I just want to acknowledge that if we mention one category, we mention the other as well.

To illustrate this a bit more, we don’t entitle a blog post “Whites are different” and leave it at that, because we’d be like, different from whom? From blacks? From Asians? From Asian-Americans? See how that works? You need to say different from some assumed baseline, and the assumed baseline has to be a cultural norm. And right now it’s white male. Which is arguable one reason that calculus students act differently when they are men (har!).

As for the other article, I already shit on that in the previous answer but I’m happy to do it once again. It’s bullshit, and I’m disappointed that the Times published it.

As for the article, I don’t have time now but I’ll take a look, thanks!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am twenty years old, near the halfway point in my senior year of a mathematics BS at a large, well-regarded public university in the Northeast. I’ve been aiming my energies at graduate school, and I am now looking at PhD program applications. Most apps ask for two or three letters of recommendation from a faculty member who is familiar with your work. This poses a very big problem, because all of my professors hate me.

Okay, maybe it’s not quite like that. But I’ve had a really lousy time in the math department at LWRPUN. My fellow students are dispassionate, unresponsive, and unfriendly. My professors are dry, uncommitted to their students, and the ones who aren’t mathematically incompetent are lousy teachers. On top of all this, a crippling bureaucracy has prevented me countless times from taking classes I’m interested in (few as they are in this catalog), substituting instead ANOTHER REQUIRED SEMESTER OF ANALYSIS.

So I haven’t made any personal connections of the sort that might benefit me in the form of a letter of rec. My work hasn’t even been that good; my depression and anxiety (in general as well as re all this) have increasingly prevented me from completing even easy homework assignments. Nobody here has seen my best mathematical work, and for that matter, nobody anywhere else has either*.

And for four years, everyone I’ve come to with this gathering creeping progressively life-eating concern has given me the same old BS about You should really put yourself out there! and It’s just so important to go to your professor’s office hours! without considering maybe — I’ve tried, I really have.

What can I do, Aunt Pythia? I’m really passionate about mathematics, but I’m worried I won’t be able to pursue my studies without these magic papers.

Reports Embargoed by Crummy Lecturers, Earnestly Seeking Solace

*I thankfully have a professor from an outside experience willing to write about my teaching credentials, but that one letter is surely not sufficient to show my potential as a graduate student and researcher.


I am afraid I will have to call bullshit on you, RECLESS. Plus your sign-off doesn’t actually spell anything.

Here’s the thing, there are no mathematically incompetent lecturers at large, well-regarded public universities. There are, in fact, mathematically very competent people who can’t get jobs at such places. Such is the pyramid-shaped job market of mathematics. So whereas I believe you when you say your lecturers have been uninspired, and uncommitted to their students, the fact that you added “mathematically incompetent” just makes me not believe you at all, in anything.

Here’s what I think is happening. You think you’re really into math, but you’ve never really understood your classes, nor have you understood that you’ve never understood your classes, because your self-image is that you’re already a mathematician, and that people have just not acknowledged your brilliance.

But that’s not how math actually works. Math is a social endeavor, where you have to communicate your ideas well enough for others to understand them, or else you aren’t doing math.

I’m not saying you haven’t had bad luck with teachers. It’s a real possibility. But there’s something else going on as well, and I don’t think you can honestly expect to go to the next level without sorting stuff out. In other words, even if you don’t love the teacher, if you loved the subject, got into it, and did the proofs, you’d still be getting adequate grades to ask for letters. The thing about writing letters, as a math prof, is that you don’t have to like the student personally to write a good letter, you just need to admire their skills. But since you can’t do that either, you won’t get good letters, and moreover I don’t think you’d deserve good letters. And therefore I don’t think you should go to grad school.

Suggestion: look carefully at your own behavior, figure out what it is you are doing that isn’t working. Maybe think of what you love about math, or about your own image of being a mathematician, and see if there’s something you really know you’re good at, and other people know it to, and develop that.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dearest Aunt Pythia,

I have a sex question for you! Kind of. You have to get through the boring back story first…I’m a 19 year old female physics major. I’m quiet, rather mousy, and awkward. A lot of the time I feel like I have more to prove than the boys do, because I’m a girl, and because of the aforementioned shyness.

People seem to automatically assume I’m unintelligent. I think I’m just as intelligent as the boys in my program, but I don’t come off that way! Point is, I want to be this cool, strong, independent, successful, respectable girl who doesn’t take shit from misogynistic people who assume I’m inferior.

However, I feel extremely guilty about my sexual preferences. I’m pretty submissive. I’d like power exchange in my relationships…hair pulling, bondage, spanking, being bossed around, the whole bit. I like to be dominated by men. Older men. Smart older men. Hopefully I’ve successfully conveyed my dilemma. I want to be respected by the men (and women, and others) I’m surrounded by in my academic life, but taken control of as a girlfriend.

Why does what I despise happening to me in an academic setting please me so much in a romantic/sexual one? Agh, I feel like such a bad girl! (and not in the arousing way…)

Much Love,

Dear Conflicted,

This is such a relief – finally, a sex question! – and it’s honestly one of the best questions I’ve ever gotten, ever, in Aunt Pythia or elsewhere. I’m so glad I can answer this for you.

It is absolutely not in conflict to want something in a sexual context that is abhorrent to you in normal life. It is in fact a well-known pattern! You shouldn’t feel at all weird about it! Lots – LOTS – of the submissives I’ve met are, in their day jobs, the boss, literally. They have companies and are extremely fancy and in control. And then they love to be bossed around and spanked. Seriously. If anything, my feeling is that your sexual proclivities point to being alpha in real life, but maybe I’m going overboard.

So yeah, no problem here. You are killing it. And in 3 or 4 years I want you to write back and explain to me how you’ve found an amazing lover who gives you what you want in the bedroom and worships your physics prowess outside it. There will, in fact, be people lining up for this role.

And those people in your program? Do your best to ignore them. Men are just impossibly arrogant at that age, but time will humble them somewhat even as your confidence will rise as you learn more. I’m not saying it ever evens out entirely but it does improve.

Also: find other women (and super cool men) to study with. Surround yourself with supportive people. Take note of obnoxious people and avoid them. Trade up with friends whenever possible.

Love always,

Aunt Pythia


Well, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied! Please if you could, ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:


Aunt Pythia’s advice

It’s been a tough week, friends. Aunt Pythia is both excited and anxious for the future of the country. What with the Ferguson situation, and the Eric Garner protests, there’s very little time to knit. I’ve got nothing of my own to show you today, so instead I’ll just post this:

OK now let’s get to your questions! And don’t forget to

ask Aunt Pythia your question at the bottom of the page!

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What are your thoughts on the push to eliminate the algebra requirement for college students (see the AMATYC statement on “Alternative Pathways”)? This is different from simply beefing up statistics education, I’ve looked fairly closely at several of these alternative pathways (Quantway and Statway and the Math Lit textbooks of Almy and Mercer) and they are mathematically very weak. This appears to be a cynical ploy to keep pushing students through the (very expensive) process of getting a degree without actually completing worthwhile work.

I think that Algebra is the grammar of mathematics and that it should be a prerequisite for any course in statistics that is at all useful.


Dear ES,

I couldn’t find that statement, so I don’t really know what’s at stake. The problem – or maybe it’s not a problem, because I’ve used it when developing curriculum myself – is that two people probably wouldn’t agree on what “algebra” means.

For example, I was at a talk recently where a woman from Microsoft was advocating a new way of teaching computer science in high school, and she made a point of saying it wouldn’t involve algebra but would introduce students to formalized thinking and, in particular, formal manipulation of symbols. For me, that was a ridiculous statement, because that’s what algebra is. But I say that knowing there are probably a huge number of things being stuffed into an “Algebra” course that have little to do with my definition.

There’s another problem, which is pinpointing exactly what is useful and what isn’t useful for a non-mathematician to understand later in life. It’s a fuzzy issue, and honestly I’m probably someone who would rather see people be able to read, understand, and dissect statistical statements about medical research than solve the quadratic equation from scratch, on the grounds that it’s more important to their actual health and well-being to understand accuracy than to understand square roots, especially of negative numbers.

Not sure that helped, but if you want more explicit opinions, please write back with links.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My wife and I have been married 5 years (no children). Last year she changed jobs. She became friendly with a girl at her new job, “Janet.” Janet has since been over to our house several times and she and my wife have a “girl’s night out” (GNO) once or twice a month.

Last week after another GNO my wife was subdued. The next night after dinner, my wife told me that Janet had made a pass at her. She had turned Janet down but now wanted my permission to pursue Janet.

When I asked if she was suggesting a threesome, she said that she wanted it to be just the two of them. When I asked if that meant I could find a girl on the side, she became angry and said that this was different.

I had no previous indication of my wife’s bisexuality. What should I do?

Not Open to Sharing With Individuals Nor Groups


Nice sign off!

So wait, let me get this straight. Would you have been into a threesome? Would you have been OK with the Janet stuff if you also got to play outside? I mean, I am seeing your sign-off as a signal of unhappiness, but I’m not sure what the flavor of the unhappiness is.

Look, every marriage figures out its own way in these things. The good marriages are the ones that figure out ways that work for them, and the bad marriages are the ones that don’t. As far as I know there is no lasting marriage that never gets tested at all. Contrary to modern opinion, most marriages don’t instantly dissolve when someone has a fling or even an affair. Good marriages take things in stride, at least if things don’t get too intense and both parties actually want things to work out and stay in the marriage.

In other words, there is no absolute answer, there is only the negotiation you come up with with your partner. And the definition of “it’s working” is “it’s working for us.”

So basically, my advice is to not take any advice. But if you want my advice, it would be to spend more time asking why your wife gets to try out Janet and you don’t get to look around as well. It’s not obvious to me why Janet is “different”; after all, she’s a person, and she’s not in your marriage, and as such she’s a potential threat to you, and a potential cause of jealousy. If you are willing to put up with those things, your wife should be too.

Which is not to say your negotiation should end there, where neither of you get to do anything, but that there should be some sense of equity. Otherwise you will feel resentful, and resentment kills relationships.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia:

I am a mom. My daughter is a first year at a women’s college (let’s call it B) affiliated with an Ivy league institution (let’s call it C) in a major metropolitan market.

My daughter has always appeared to have a very strong aptitude for patterns and puzzles. Yet given the nature of our home school district (not good), she probably did not have the quality of math prep that kids at other schools benefited from. In general, she has always been a very good student, though not a extraordinary standardized test taker, i.e. SATs.

She is showing a strong interest in math and computer science. However, the women’s college (B) does not seem to be the place where the MAT and SCI stuff occurs. Instead, the B students are required to go to the neighboring co-ed institution (C) where male students with 800s on their math SATs likely dominate those classes in their potentially intimidating manner.

My question is rather vague: But what is your advice about how I can help her navigate this challenge? I am wondering if it’s not true that many students who would be excellent math students in many environments will be scared away from this one?

(And I know you can’t answer this one but: In an era when B is touting female empowerment and the world is conscious of the need to get women involved in MAT and CompSCI, wouldn’t it be great to see B offer more math and csi?)


Wants a Girl to Code or Do Math

Dear WaGtCoDM,

When I was at Barnard, I started a course called “Introduction to Higher Mathematics” which was exactly addressing the problem that most male math majors came in with lots of experience from high school math camps and math competitions in how to write proofs, but most women interested in math came in just interested and excited about math, but very little background in writing proofs.

The course was a huge success, and was mainly attended by women, although there were men of course, since both Barnard and Columbia classes are open to everyone (except Barnard first year seminars). I wrote about it here, go take a look.

Some good news: the class is still offered. I’d suggest you tell your daughter about it, or about a class like it, if I’m wrong about where she goes to college.

Go nerd girls!!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am in a quandary. My Ph.D. supervisor is a lazy man. Sometimes when I go to him he starts talking to me about non-thesis related topics. Commenting on Politics is his favorite job. We have diametrically opposite ideologies.

Listening to his right wing rants takes a serious toll on my well-being. I am not a very articulate speaker so I do not think I would go very far if I decided to have a political argument with him. I am quite happy if he would discuss only maths with me. I don’t know how to bear his diatribes about morality and meritocracy. I feel like taking a shower every time I come back from visiting his office.

Please help me or I shall have to drop the idea of PhD completely.

Politically Against Thesis Supervisor

Dear PATS,

Get another advisor! I’m sure the other professors in the department know all about this guy and his evasive, lazy, right-wing ways. Go to another professor whose work you admire and whose field you find interesting, and tell him that things are not working out with your current advisor, and ask for advice. She or he They will give you good advice, and if they don’t, go to yet another professor in the department and ask for advice.

This is your life and  your career, you have to advocate for yourself. Don’t give up before you’ve tried everything.

Aunt Pythia


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

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Holy crap! Aunt Pythia is in love with a new knitting pattern and has just completed her first reversible “flaming hat”:

The orange is cashmere. I got it on sale.

The orange is cashmere. I got it on sale. Ridiculously scrumptious.

The green is leftover from a sweater Aunt Pythia knitted for her husband years ago, a wool/silk blend.

The green is leftover from a sweater Aunt Pythia knitted for her husband years ago, a wool/silk blend. Also scrumptious.

And that’s all I got today, folks.

Just kidding! I’m here for you guys, of course! Let’s dig in. But before I forget,

please think of something

titillating, reversible, and scrumptious 

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,

This may be too broad a generalization, but I feel that current practices of teaching math were developed in an era when computers were not available. In an age where powerful, open-source tools are readily available and it’s even possible to do symbolic math using a computer, is it still useful to teach traditional pen-and-paper math to students who have no interest in becoming professional mathematicians? Does one really need to know that a trigonometric substitution would convert a tricky integral to a familiar one? As teachers, should we just focus on “big picture” concepts and use computers to explore problems on a larger scale than are feasible by hand (e.g. 1000 X 1000 matrices instead of 3 X 3)? Or, will lack of rigor in teaching have long term consequences (dubious application of math in real world)? Are there examples of the use of computers in mathematical education that you would recommend?

Obsessive Correlator

Dear OC,

I kind of agree. I never saw the point of cosines and sines until Taylor Series, even though they theoretically help ships navigate in the ocean. I mean, maybe, but that connection was never made clear to us.

If I had my way, we’d spend a lot more time doing simple data analysis, trying to understand what “statistical evidence” means, so we train people to read the newspaper and scientific research papers and not be cowed by the math, which is usually pretty simple.

Also, there are new tools like this one (hat tip Josh Vekhter) which are taking care of the rote arithmetic already:

The good news is, there are efforts underway to modernize the mathematics curriculum. The bad news is they’ve gotten caught in a web of politics. But I do expect this stuff to get sorted out over time.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m an undergrad freshman studying physics and math. I absolutely adore physics and it’s what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. I’d really, really love to become a physicist but I fear I’m just not smart enough. Reading your sample question has worried me. I had always thought if I work hard enough I could do it, but it’s always in the back of my mind that I’m not creative/intelligent enough. When (if ever) will I know if I have what it takes?

Unsure and Insecure

Dear U&I,

Short answer: never.

The long answer has four parts.

First, I have actually never met anyone who thinks they are smart enough to be a physicist or a mathematician at the level they want to be. Just get used to it and enjoy the love for the subject anyway. Also, knowing that nobody ever feels smart enough might be comforting.

Second, in general the more time you spend with something, the better you get at it, and the more you love something the more time you want to spend with it. Sometimes insecurity can be debilitating, but if you remember you love it aside from your ability, you can try to keep things cool.

Third, when your teachers and others encourage you, believe them. If you don’t get into a grad school for math or physics, take it as a sign – probably – that it might not be for you, but if you do get into a grad school, just trust that other people see something in you that you can’t see yourself, yet.

Finally, I am not sure what you mean by my “sample question”, did I ask something that made a bunch of people feel not smart enough for physics and math? If so, I apologize. I never mean to do that. I really don’t think any one question could possibly be sufficient to size someone up in this kind of deep way.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Lately I’ve been a bit of a hermit. I do go out sometimes, but I often don’t really talk to anyone because of the well-documented awkwardness involved in starting conversations with strangers (which somehow seems to not bother some people).

I have a work friend in a similar predicament, and we came up with the idea for a “woman scavenger hunt” (we’re both single straight men) designed to help us get over our discomfort with talking to strangers (specifically, women). The scavenger hunt would be a race to meet women with particular characteristics such as:

  • wearing a bandanna
  • reading a book in a bar at night
  • has a driver’s license from Hawaii or Alaska
  • knows sign language

We would have to talk to the person in question and secure some sort of evidence, such as a photograph (consensually, of course!)

My questions are:

  1. Does this sound creepy? For some reason it feels like we’re plotting to invade other people’s privacy, and it’s hard to decide if this is real or if I’m just antisocial.
  2. If you endorse the idea, can you add to our list? It has to be something for which one can collect evidence; we ruled out “met Elizabeth Warren”, for example.

Tired Introvert Mulling Interpersonal Development


First of all, I think it’s a goodish idea. I would like to suggest that you enlarge the goal to “meeting a person with the following characteristic” rather than a woman specifically, because the truth is you’re probably awkward meeting men and women, and this will give you practice, and although you are theoretically more interested in the women, meeting men is a good idea too. Plus, men have friends who are girls. If you give a good impression to the men you meet, the women will be like, “who’s this guy?”.

By the way, one of my good friends had a habit when she was single of hanging out with her girlfriends (wingwomen actually) and coming up with slightly artificial arguments at their table, which they would turn into “polls” for the entire bar. In other words, they’d argue aimlessly until they came up with something jicy enough to bring to every other group of men, women, and mixed groups at the bar and poll them. They might do this all night, gradually getting to know people at the bar, and they might have actually been interested romantically or sexually in only a few of the people they interacted with, but their friendliness and interactivity was a hit with everyone, assuming their polls questions were funny and smart, which they were.

In other words, it’s a good idea, and it’s quirky, and if you can play with it and have fun with it, and get other people to be into it and have fun with it, then it’s all good. You might not get laid, but in the worst case scenario you make friends.

Just to be clear, you gotta make sure the “characteristics” you’re looking for don’t get creepy or sexual. Don’t, for example, go up to women and say you’re looking for a woman with such-and-such sexual experience or physical attributes. Gross.

And never, ever, ever do anything this guy suggests.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m applying for (academic) math jobs at the moment. I’m also female (obvious from my name) and a lesbian (unsurprising once you meet me).

Occasionally, as part of the job application, I’m asked to comment on how I might contribute to diversity in mathematics. This is obviously a broad question, but part of my answer inevitably involves a discussion of women in mathematics. The way I talk about this issue is naturally colored by the fact that I’m a woman.

One of the prompts explicitly mentions the GLBT axis of diversity. It is not as clear to me how or whether to address this in my statement. My personal experience is that anti-gay biases in mathematics aren’t as pernicious as racial or gender biases, so I tend not to raise this issue on my own.

If I come out while saying that I’m supportive of GLBT students, then it sounds like I’m looking for extra credit for being a minority. I don’t need brownie points for being queer. But on the other hand, I’m out in my personal life and so it seems weird to be closeted in a discussion touching on GLBT diversity. But then again it seems weird to be discussing sexuality at all in the context of a job application.

In summary: would you come out in a “statement of diversity”?

Closeted Around Diversity

Dear CAD,

Things have changed since I applied for jobs! We didn’t have diversity statements back then. And it’s weird to think they’d be prompting you to disclose stuff like your sexuality – in fact it sounds downright illegal.

After some thought and a minimal amount of googling, I think maybe you should interpret this as prompting your experience in promoting diversity in mathematics. This idea is backed up by the advice on this webpage, although I don’t know if that makes it a universal truth.

In other words, have you mentored women? Have minorities of one type or another felt comfortable enough around you to come ask you questions? Did you organize or give a talk at a Sonia Kovalesky Day somewhere? Were you the faculty advisor for some other group that was diverse? That kind of thing.

I guess I think there’s no reason to talk directly about your sexuality when you talk about your experience promoting diversity, even though it might be inferred, rightly or wrongly.

To sum up, I would not come out in a “statement of diversity.”

Auntie P


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

Click here for a form.

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Well, hello and good morning! Glad you all could make it onto Aunt Pythia’s magic bus today! I’ve redecorated to celebrate Daylight Savings Time (or rather, the end of it):

We can all get in! Squeeeeeze!!!

We can all get in! Squeeeeeze!!!

Daylight savings time has made Aunt Pythia very happy today, because it means an extra hour for me to focus on you, you and your problems, which is what Aunt Pythia loves to do, at least on Saturday mornings, and at least when they involve sex or math (or ideally, both).

By the way, to investigate and demolish the myths around Daylight Savings Time, check out this fantastic and scientific video (best line, “waking up is like sneezing”).

Before we dig in to this week’s juicy questions, Aunt Pythia has an unusual request. Do you remember a couple of weeks ago, when I dragged my family apple picking? Well it turns out that a bushel of apples is A LOT OF APPLES, and I’m really very sick of apples, apple pies (current count: 9 pies made in the past 2 weeks), and apple sauce. If anyone wants some apples, swing on by and I’ll hook you up. Please. Oh, and also:

please think of something interesting, reasonable, and non-apple related

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,

I am pretty much fine with pornography, aside from instances in which women are blatantly coerced or otherwise not participating of free will.

My question pertains to the increasing prevalence of extreme porn and how it impacts real relationships. As with our news and so on, everything has become click bait. Remember back when lesbian porn was risque? Now if a girl isn’t sucking a dick that was just in her ass the previous minute, it’s considered sorta boring. Next thing you know, men imagine women should be doing all these things in real life.

Trying to frame a question here, how does one be generally supportive of the existence of pornography and also help men understand that she is “not doing that” without coming off like a prude? Moreover, when encountering such a man, is it better to just tell them to fuck off entirely? I cannot imagine that any man who is obsessed with the idea to jizz in my eyeball can have actual respect for me as a human being.

Wondering Tolerant Female

Dear WTF,

Great question!

But before we go there, how can you be sure someone isn’t being coerced? I can’t, so I prefer the animated kind of pornography, preferably Japanese, because those Japanese animators are totally perverted and awesome, and then there’s really nobody being coerced. Perhaps TMI about Aunt Pythia, but since I didn’t tell you which of the hundreds of subgenres of Japanese anime I’m into, you really don’t know much – trust me.

Now, on to your actual question. I agree that the realm of “normal sex” has moved by more than a few notches recently. When I was in high school, there was no internet, so we actually had to steal our parent’s dirty magazines and VCR tapes – lots of them – to figure stuff out. Come to think of it, at least where I came from, it really wasn’t hard to come across porn, and moreover I remember it being insanely misogynistic and violent, almost always involving rape of a clearly drugged-up woman. From that vantage point the weird, rape-dominated scenes from the 1980’s have been replaced by weird but consensual extreme positions of today, and I’m personally glad to make that trade.

I’m not a historian of porn, though, I so I might be getting this all wrong, and yes of course I know there’s lots of very extreme stuff available nowadays as well.

In terms of respect for someone as a human being, I’m not sure we’re speaking the same language. There’s nothing logically inconsistent with thoroughly objectivizing a sexual partner during a sex act and then having a mutually respectful and thoughtful conversation about free will fifteen minutes later. It’s all about what you’ve agree to, and what’s fun for you.

So in other words, if you don’t want to be doing this stuff, that’s fine and you shouldn’t agree to it, but measure someone’s respect for you by how they bring up the question, not whether they want to do it. In other words, the man who doesn’t respect you is the man who pushes this stuff on you without consultation, or who makes it your problem that you’re not into it.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

The Empire Builder (Amtrak) takes around 46 hours to reach Seattle from Chicago (if it’s on time). Besides the amazing scenery, the trip offers the possibility of scintillating conversations with strangers in the Dining Car. A flight between the two cities, on the other hand, will take just 5 hours. It would be much cheaper, but would otherwise be a nondescript experience. While air travel is the pragmatic choice, the rail option underscores the point that sometimes the journey is as interesting as the destination. As I teach an informal math course to some colleagues, I often find that we are conditioned to find the shortest path to the answer. In many “toy problems” that we discuss in class, it is the path to the answer that is relevant to the real world. The actual answer is relatively inconsequential. Should math be taught differently so that it is more akin to train travel than flying? If so, what would you recommend to make math teaching more contemplative? And would these approaches be scalable, i.e., work in structured courses with larger enrollment?

Obsessive Correlator

Dear OC,

This question is also great, and has a much smaller chance of having been stolen from Savage Love.

I have often fantasized about taking a sleeper train across the country, with my whole family in tow, and meeting people in the dining car and having fascinating conversations. I’ve even priced it out, and it’s expensive but not impossible. I got the idea from a mathematician who had traveled with his family on the Orient Express in the 1980’s, which is even more fantastical (and expensive). Can you imagine getting on a train in Paris and getting off in Hong Kong? How cool would that be?


Even the angle of Europe on this map is mysterious.

Back to your question. Why yes, I think a meandering route through mathematics would be wonderful, and is sadly almost never done. We are so obsessed with skills-based accomplishments, we rarely spend time on why we’re doing something or how someone could have come up with it in the first place.

One of my few regrets of leaving Barnard is that I never had a chance to run a freshman seminar course on mathematics that I’d planned in the style of the Pythagorean Society (minus some of their crazy rules like “not picking up that which has fallen”).

It is my earnest belief that every person engaged in learning mathematics is themselves a mathematician, rediscovering and rejoicing in the mathematics that has been understood by our culture for hundreds of years but by us as individuals for no time at all. We should all be treated as philosopher queens in this process, and so my idea was to do that in a wifi-blocked room, focusing on the questions we pose and how we pose them and what patterns we might find and why we’d care (or not!) about them beyond their intrinsic beauty.

Sounds great! I still wish I could do that. And I also hope that other people do that.

So here’s the thing. Most people think of mathematicians as super lazy, and there’s of course something to that; lots of mathematical breakthroughs are essentially proven shortcuts to long-ass calculations that go something like, “we have a collection of things, and some of them have this cool property that makes them easy to understand, and now I’ve proven that all of them actually have that cool property.”

But at the same time, mathematicians are also the most inefficient people in the world, because they get entirely focused on abstract rules and scenarios that almost never have a concrete application to anything, and they think about the patterns they notice for hours. They are all about the meandering path, in other words. It’s not a bad life, but it does take time.

Finally, to your question: when it’s a small group, consider yourself a facilitator rather than a teacher. Ask questions and get people involved in the discovery. Make a silent pact with yourself that you won’t explain anything directly, that you will only issue hints, and try to emphasize the beauty and truth in everyone’s contributions. With a larger class it’s much harder, but sometimes you can get the right atmosphere and then have people work in groups.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a senior male professor in a STEM department. Here’s my question. What, if anything, should I say about romantic relationships between faculty members and graduate students? In particular, what action should I take concerning a professor who has dated at least three graduate students in our department? There is no formal rule at our university against faculty/student dating, as long as the faculty member has no direct supervisory relationship with the student. What’s more, there is a senior faculty member who is married to a woman he started dating when she was a graduate student here, which makes it awkward to denounce such relationships in general. And I know that Aunt Pythia herself is married to someone she met when she was a grad student and he was faculty!

So you could argue it’s none of my business. But you could also argue it’s rotten to put our grad students in a position of feeling like they’re a captive dating pool for the single faculty members. I know that our graduate students are aware of the serial dating; no grad student has directly told me that they find it threatening or off-putting, but another faculty member (a junior woman) has told me that she thinks it’s bad for the department.

What do you think, Aunt Pythia? Talk to the serial dater himself? Talk to the department chair? Or butt out and say nothing to anyone?

Tenured Professor at a Singles Bar

Dear TPaaSB,

It’s true, I was a grad student and my husband was a post-doc in the same department, but I’d argue that’s a bit different from his being a professor. Even so, I’d probably have dated him even if he had been, so there’s that as well.

I’m not sure how much anyone can do about this, to be honest. You can make rules but then people will probably break them. Not sure if that’s better.

On the one hand, you want graduate students to feel safe and not sexualized in their role as learners, and having the feeling that you might be “next in line” for this professor isn’t helping. It’s particularly unhelpful that he’s dated three, because it is starting to seem like he is both incapable of finding women outside the department and bad at relationships. Or maybe the women all dumped him, who knows. But yes, I agree that this guy is making things weird.

On the other hand, there’s a moment in your life as a man or a woman that you decide it’s time to look around for a life partner, and if you’re a 23-year-old woman who wants kids, like I was, then the men your age simply burst out crying in your presence from the pressure of commitment, and you end up looking for older, more stable, and more mature men that aren’t intimidated by your brains and your life plans. You could look outside the department, but the problem is you spend almost all your time in the department and there are all these yummy smart nerd boys who look great in homemade sweaters would look great in your homemade sweater, so whatareyagonnado.

In terms of advice for you, I’m going to say to keep quiet, unless you feel like the guy is actually predatory or is fucking with these women’s egos or chances of graduating. If that’s true, then talk to him and voice your concerns.

Readers, if you disagree, by all means chime in.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I just met a twenty-something hot girl online (only ten years or so younger than me); her interests (her words) are work, martinis, and rough sex (not necessarily in that order). We’ve met once so far, and it was everything I could have hoped for — spitting, faceslapping, and some dirty talk. But I know that the best way to great sex is though pleasing your partner, so for the next time we meet I want to step up my game. She said she was game for anything, so I want to be creative without crossing any boundaries. She was happy last time to be called a slut and a whore, but maybe there’s something more original as far as dirty talk goes (for example, how can I make it more interactive by forcing her to respond in some way?) Also, she’s a gorgeous BBW (mmmm), so (given the context) is calling her a fat whore a good idea? My impression is that she is naturally very confident and outspoken, so I am imagining her fantasies stem from a positive rather than negative aspect of her personality, but I really don’t know…

Naughty and Salacious; Tenured Young.

Dear NaSTY,

Aahhh, the triple fantasy of spitting, faceslapping, and dirty talk. You’re living the dream, buddy, there’s no doubt. I mean, if you’re into that kind of thing. Which you obviously are.

As far as whether she wants you to call her a “fat whore,” my guess is she wouldn’t be offended if you tried it. It’s not like fat people don’t know they’re fat! We get told it every day of our lives, so turning it around and making it a good thing (erm, in this context I think it qualifies as a good thing) might be fun!

If you’re worried about it, ask her before the next tryst, “hey honey, would it be ok if I call you a fat whore during sex? I find your body exquisite and it turns me on to talk about it.”

Auntie P


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

Click here for a form.


Categories: Aunt Pythia

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