Archive for the ‘Aunt Pythia’ Category

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Quick, get on the bus! Hurry!

Aunt Pythia is gonna be super fast this morning because she’s got crepes to make and apples to pick.

And then many, many apple pies to bake.

And then many, many apple pies to bake.

Are you ready? Belts buckled? OK great, let’s do this. And afterwards:

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,

Now I’m dying to know – what are some Dan Savage answers that you disagree with?? Say, what are your top 3?

An obliging – and curious! – good friend

Dear Ao-ac-gf,

First, let me say I’m glad this is a written word thing and I don’t have to pronounce your name.

Second, I only disagree with Dan Savage on (pretty much) one thing. And he’s a gay man, and without meaning to offend may I say he has typical gay man aesthetics coming from mostly interacting with other men. You see this is fashion as well, which is dominated by gay men.

Which is to say, he’s really judgmental about fatness. And I find it peculiar, coming from a man who is pro-sex and anti-shame on most topics. As is typical of people who are judgy about fatness, he claims it’s coming from a place of worrying about health, which I first of all object to strenuously as a super healthy fat woman, but secondly it just strikes me as almost comically parallel to how people complain about gayness and hide behind some weird argument that it’s for the sake of the gay person’s soul.

UPDATE: please read this totally awesome essay on the subject.

That’s pretty much it. In almost every other way I agree with Dan Savage. And also, I haven’t read his stuff for a while, so who knows, maybe he’s had a total change of heart, and maybe he embraces fat ladies such as myself nowadays (although, not literally, I’m sure).

XOXOX good friend!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m currently in a data quality job that I was promoted into for sheer enthusiasm and work ethic. It’s turned into a data quality/analysis/reporting and visualisation role (can you guess I’m at a non-profit). I’ve taught myself advanced Excel, some data visualisation and how to manage our database since being promoted. I love knowing what all the data shows and being able to explain why certain things are happening. However I want to excel at my job and with no prior training (I’m not even a graduate yet) I find it so stressful as I feel I’m always one step behind.

Currently to improve my skills… (I have your book on my wishlist) I follow your blog and several others in similar fields and I’ve read books on Tableau/Excel/dashboard design and books on how to think statistically. I’m going through the entirety of the maths section on Khan Academy. I’m also studying part time so I will be a graduate soon and I have done some statistics in this course but it’s all been related to psychology experiments (I started the course before being promoted).

Unfortunately no one else in my organisation does anything similar or is any kind of position to train or mentor me. Would you be able to recommend other books/blogs/online courses or even ways of thinking/learning skills that might be useful?

Girl drowing in data

Dear Girl,

Whoa! You rock! Let’s hear it for enthusiasm and work ethic, sister!

And hey, I even have advice: check out the github for my data journalism program this past summer, there’s lots of good stuff there. Also make sure you’ve taken a look at Statistics Done Wrong. And also, the drafts of my book are all on my blog.

Good luck!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am fed up with being single, and I am fed up with dating mathematicians, because the aftermath is too awkward. I’d like to try online dating, but I’m too embarrassed to tell my friends. But I feel that I need to tell someone to stay safe. Do you have any suggestions?

Currently Unsure of my Prospects In Dating


OK let me just plug dating mathematicians in spite of the fact that you’ve decided to give up on them. They are actually super nice.

Come to think of it, before I met my husband, I decided on three rules for my next boyfriend and publicly announced them to my friends:

  1. Had to be at least 30 (because younger men were so freaking immature),
  2. Had to love his job (because men who don’t love their job are so freaking insecure)
  3. Couldn’t be a mathematician (because it’s so freaking awkward after breakups)

Then, after I met my mathematician husband and people pointed out my hypocrisy, I’d always say, “two out of three aint bad, amIright?”. So in other words, I’m totally fine with your proclamation that you’re done with math people, guys or girls, as long as you are willing to bend rules for the right nerd.

Back to online dating. Yes, I think it makes sense for at least one of your friends to know about your online activities before you start meeting strangers in night clubs. But I don’t really see why that’s embarrassing, maybe because I’m not easily embarrassed, but also because EVERYONE DOES ONLINE DATING. Seriously, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t tried that.

Why don’t you talk to a friend you trust and ask them what they think of online dating, and kind of poke the topic around a bit. I think you will be surprised to learn that it’s very common, and not at all embarrassing. And once you start doing it, with the disclosure to a good friend who will notice if you go missing, please be aware of the problems with online dating that have nothing to do with safety.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Our daughter has recently started watching way too much Faux News and blaming everything wrong in her life on “the liberals.” Not wanting to damage our relationship with her or our grandkids, my wife and I tend not to respond to her tea-partyish pronouncements. Alas, our silence is characterized as “uncomfortable,” and if we look at one another we’re presumed to be eye-rolling. I am afraid the whole thing may be escalating to the point that the kids start to see us as the villains responsible for the tensions in the air. The alternatives to silence appear to be: responding truthfully, which would probably get us ejected, or feigning agreement (i.e., lying), which we simply will not do. Agreeing honestly with minor details only gets us pressed for our positions on the larger issues, and we’re back to those two choices. Any ideas you have would be welcome.

Virtually Unspeaking Leftish Parents In No-win Exercise


What a foxy sign-off!!!

OK, so this is your daughter, right? Not your daughter-in-law? So presumably you raised her? And presumably she knows all about how leftish you guys are?

If so, it’s a weird situation. My best guess, from way over here in unspeakably leftish territory, is that she has hostility for you two and wants to blame you for her problems but the closest she can get to blaming you is blaming people like you, namely liberals.

Even if I’m wrong, there really does seem to be more than enough blame and hostility to go around in the above description, mostly coming from her, but also being passed around like a hot potato by all concerned. If I were you I’d focus on the underlying hostility, although maybe not talk directly about it with her. Some ideas:

  1. Maybe you could have dinner with just her (or with her husband if he’s around) and talk about how you guys don’t have to agree about everything to get along as a family. Focus on the interactions rather than the details of what you don’t agree about. Try to make a plan with her to avoid hot topics and enjoy your time together. Plan an apple-picking trip!
  2. If that’s too direct, think about what she’s actually accomplishing when she makes “tea-partyish pronouncements”. Does she do this right after something happens to embarrass her or put a spotlight on her vulnerabilities? Is there a pattern to the behaviors? Understanding what gives rise to those moments might help you defuse them. And if you can’t defuse them, it still might help you to know when things are coming up. Plan ahead about what you will say to change the subject.
  3. You can try to address the frustration by giving her lots of love in other ways. In other words, just find things where you guys get along and stick with them. Try to make a habit out of emphasizing common ground. Maybe you all love certain kinds of food or entertainment? Karaoke?
  4. If all those distraction methods fail, I think an articulate discussion of polite (even if strenuous!) disagreement is great for kids. And it shouldn’t ban you from spending time with the kids either, if you keep it relatively civilized.
  5. Here’s what might get you into real trouble: if you ever tell the grandkids what you really think when their mom isn’t around. That will get back to her and she will feel betrayed and might take away your private time with the grandkids. I think the disagreements have to happen out in the open in front of everyone.
  6. Finally, it just might not be possible. If she is on a tear for being hostile and blaming, then that’s what she’s gonna do. Some people are just filled with anger and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I would just try the other stuff and if they don’t work try to be there for the grandkids, especially when they’re going through puberty.

Good luck, grandpa! I hope this was somewhat helpful.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

CA has just adopted legislation to require that colleges require students to give positive consent before sex. In other words, lack of protest does not constitute consent. The change seems appropriate, but I wonder about the basic structure of the system.

My question: why are schools responsible rather than the police and does this empirically make the situation better? Are there fewer incidents, faster prosecution, more victim support, etc, because the universities are involved or does it function to shield perpetrators from criminal punishment?

Sorry this is only a quasi-sex question.

Sex Questions Unlikely In Near Term



I’m on the verge of making a huge rant about this issue. I’ll probably still do it actually, but yes, yes yes. Here’s an imaginary Q&A I have with myself on a daily basis.

Why are schools responsible? Mostly historical, towns don’t want to have to hire extra police to deal with the nuisance problems (think: vomit everywhere) that proliferate on campus, so schools are like, “we got this!”.

Does this make sense? It does for actual nuisance problems, but not for violent crime. In fact it leads to ridiculous situations where professors of philosophy are expected to decide whether something was a sex act or just really terrible sex by asking whether it’s really possible for someone to be ass-raped without lubrication. Yes, it is.

Why don’t students go straight to the real police when there is a violent crime committed against them? Partly because the campus police are nearby and present, but mostly because the “real” police are not sufficiently responsive to their complaints.

So doesn’t that mean that there are two entirely different systems available to 19-year-old rape victims, depending on whether they happen to be college students or not? Yes, and it’s bullshit, and elitist, although neither system actually works for the victims.

So what should we do? We should require that claims of violent crimes on campuses go straight to the real police and we should also require that real police learn how to do their jobs when it comes to rape, so it’s a fair system for all 19-year-olds.

Aunt Pythia


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

Has Aunt Pythia mentioned recently how much she loves you people?! Well, if not, then let it be known: Aunt Pythia loves you people.

Aunt Pythia asked for new questions last week, and you guys fucking delivered. Outstanding. I counted 21 questions when I started today’s column, which is a good 18 more questions than I had last week. Granted, some of them look like really long stories continued over multiple submissions, or even spam, but I was just skimming so I don’t know that’s true.

Here’s the thing. It’s 47 degrees outside and rainy, and you might think that’s a bad thing, but I am inwardly celebrating the weather. Why? Well, I’ll tell you: it’s knitting weather my friends! There’s nobody gonna stop me from sorting my yarn and knitting the fuck out of it all day today.

Yessirree. I’m barely gonna get up from my chair except to make my kids crepes. Oh, and to boil some water for a pot of tea. Holy crap that sounds cozy. That’s the plan, people, and I hope you have an equally delicious plan yourselves. Having said all this makes me want to mix it all up and show you a knitted tea cosy which I must assume is flannel lined:


Technically this is crocheted but I do that too.

Are you with me? Flannel bathrobes and comfy chairs! Right now! You!

(pro tip: if you don’t have a flannel bathrobe, a flannel sheet wrapped around you will do in a pinch.)

OK, all comfy? Good. After enjoying today’s column, please don’t hesitate to:

submit yet more stolen question from old Dan Savage columns

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 is your opinion about monogamy and respect in a partnership?

I fell into a relationship with the most wonderful, intelligent, kind human being, whom I cherish very much. But I have always found monogamy difficult and sometimes unnatural. I tried from the start not to “define” things, but said wonderful human being is very much against “open” relationships and follows a more traditional conservative view of partnerships. I have no complaints about our own sex life, W.H.B is open minded and open to being tied up, etc., it’s just that sometimes I like to be involved with more free-floating. Thus, I have been committed and loyal to W.H.B, but I am beginning to feel restrained and worry that because of this will end things entirely.

What do you suggest I do? Should I suppress these feelings entirely? So far I have succeeded but it has left me restless. Should I end this relationship? But I care very much for this person and want neither of us to get hurt. Should I try as much as possible to negotiate threesomes? (Although that requires a willing and trusty third person, which might be difficult to find, although potentially worth it, but morever W.H.B. might not be into repeated trysts.) Should I work within the boundaries of what W.H.B. draws as a baseline “OK” aka, making out is okay, but no penetration etc., but in the end might those lines get shady? Should I just flirt my pants off with people without touching them?

I find that many people hear the word “open” and see it as a death sentence for a partnership, and I don’t want to drop that bomb for either of us. In the long run I do believe in life partners to which we remain emotionally faithful, but I have a hard time balancing that with my restless spirit, which frustrates me, because I do care deeply for said being.

Physically open woman engineer regretting Self limited unity tie

Dear PowerSlut,

Great question! And I’m impressed that you’re asking this question now. Most people who ask me something like that have already been through the “flirting their pants off with someone” phase (more about this phase below!), by which time things have gotten way more complicated.

OK, so I notice you didn’t mention children or marriage, so I’m going to assume that you’re not married to this guy and that there are no kids involved, which honestly makes a huge difference, because it means you have much less at risk.

Now I will make an observation, which is not meant to be a philosophical nor moral statement about slutty people in situations like yours. Just a fact. Namely, those situations don’t last long. It’s a very unstable equilibrium.

In my experience, with my slutty friends and acquaintances, the following tends to happen sooner or later, with emphasis on sooner: you, the slut, start “flirting your pants off without touching” – possibly the sexiest thing in the world to do – and then quickly find yourself with your pants off, on the floor of a bathroom at a club or a bar somewhere. It’s not pretty, but I’d argue it’s a testament to what happens in this modern age when we feel repressed and simultaneously feel entitled to get what we want.

And that’s not to say we shouldn’t feel entitled. Entitled isn’t a bad word here. After all, what was all that progress we made in the last 50 years for if not the rights of the slutty women to go be sluts? Amen to entitlement, sister. It’s time women got what they really want without threat of death or social isolation.

Bottomline, when my slutty friends start complaining to me about not getting enough sex in their current love relationship, I kind of just look at my watch and start the countdown. It averages about 12 months before the inevitable bathroom floor story (or equivalent).

So here’s the thing. Instead of wondering whether that’s going to happen if things go on as they are, you might want to think of whether, when you’re picking yourself up from that bathroom floor, where yes you used a condom, you can go back to your adorable partner W.H.B. and not feel like a shit. There are a few scenarios you might consider:

  1. Lie to him and never tell him about the bathroom floor incident. This depends on your ability to lie and your guilt levels. And this is frankly impossible if you don’t practice safe sex, so please do.
  2. Decide to tell him about the bathroom floor incident. If you go this route I’d suggest waiting a few weeks and then being sure you can convincingly say that the sex was safe and that you don’t care about that guy at all, and he’s not a threat to the relationship, and you haven’t seen him since. This requires that you actually think those things and that you are basically informing him of your persistent sluttiness, which he might not be able to handle, but then again he might. Another possibility is to tell him in advance that such a situation might happen, but then it’s theoretical and he might not believe that people can do that without it being a big deal.
  3. Break up with your dear W.H.B. because neither of these options are doable.

There’s another option which some eagle-eyed readers might have noticed I omitted, which is to never get onto the bathroom floor with some random dude at a club to begin with. I agree that, theoretically speaking, this is an option for some people, but not, in my experience, for sluts. Having said that I might be cheating slightly and defining “sluts” ex post facto.

Notice I haven’t given you advice here, exactly. Because the truth is, I don’t know enough about who you are and who W.H.B. is to know what might work. If I were forced to choose, I’d go for #3, because from the outsider’s perspective, there are far too many young couples that are sexually incompatible but decide to stay together anyway and then are really really frustrated for a very long time. But again, really not sure what’s right for you, and despite that I hope I’ve still been somewhat helpful.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Please don’t rebuke me for not asking you a question. (Yeah like that’ll stop you! :)

It’s just that, I thought you’d find this link worth knowing about in case you don’t already.

By the way, I have been reading The New Jim Crow like you said to do. It is both fascinating and totally depressing, but the mere existence of the book makes it a little less depressing. Michelle Alexander is an exceptionally skillful author and a perfect one to have written this amazing book. Many thanks for the great reading assignment.


Elvis Von Essende Nicholas Friedrich Lester Otto Widener IV

Dear Elvis,

Thanks for loving The New Jim Crowif anything since shit went down in Ferguson I think it should be required reading.

For those of you who didn’t bother to click on the link, it’s an article about an app building organization that focuses on helping low-income smartphone users with their daily problems. The most promising app they mention is called “Easy Food Stamps,” and makes it easier for people to apply for foodstamps.

I like the idea. It reminds me of my last visit to Silicon Valley, where I heard one entrepreneur tell another entrepreneur about this amazing app he was using that turned on his air conditioner before he got home, thus saving him the trouble of being in his apartment for a full 5 minutes with the famously unbearable San Francisco heat. I think I heard him describe it as “solving the most important problem of my life.” Which says a lot about these guys’ problems.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I recently started my Ph.D. in a math-intensive male-dominated field, and I find myself surprisingly hurt by some of the subtle sexism I’ve found in my department. For example, when asking questions the (male) TAs twist themselves into mental pretzels in order to find a hint of correctness in the guys’ answers – even when, frankly, there is nothing right about them – but dismiss as trivial and/or fail to understand the women’s answers, even when those answers are almost perfect. I’ve also noticed that when the whole cohort is working on homework together, my fellow women only have their ideas taken seriously after a guy pipes up and seconds their suggestion.

Yesterday I was working on homework with one of the guys in my cohort (let’s call him Tim). Tim and I were trying two different approaches to a proof, and mine ended up coming out really well while his fizzled out. I explained my way to him, we got really excited about it, and I felt great about the whole exchange. When the topic came up later in a group-wide email chain, I said, “Tim and I already worked this one out!” and then proceeded to explain how. Today I arrived at school to find the whole group abuzz about how elegant and great “Tim’s” proof was. I feel like this early stage is when the cohort slowly establishes mental lists of who is good at what (and this area really is my strength), but somehow the credit never ends up going to the girls. How can I build a reputation as a student when my good ideas aren’t good until a guy appropriates them? And what can I do to make sure the other women in my class get the credit they deserve?

Craving Recognition Ensures Disappointment, I’m Told Meanwhile, Everyone Exhibiting Extra Estrogen Experiences Exiguous Encouragement


First, amazing sign-off.

Second, yes, yes, yes, YES. An incredibly important point, and thanks so much for expressing it so well.

This is exactly what I am always explaining to people when they argue against my “Great Men With Big Ideas” rant, whereby I complain that people who explain the history of ideas in terms of Great Men With Big Ideas are using a narrative crutch which is both sexist and inaccurate. Nonetheless, it is a tradition, and people like traditions. It particularly irks me when you see pictures of these Great Men With Big Ideas. It’s one reason I like to focus on ideas rather than the so-called “owners” of these ideas, because I know that, behind the curtain there could very well be an uncredited woman.

As for advice, I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d take every opportunity to correct people in person: “actually, that was my idea, but then Tim and I worked it out together.” I’d also go to Tim and ask him to do the same and tell him you know he knows how sexist other people are and how this stuff gets out of hand. Depending on whether Tim is a good guy, he’d be happy to do that. And if he isn’t, don’t work with him again.

In other words, this is a cultural practice, which needs to change, but that kind of change is hard, and you just have to do your crummy part in making it change when it concerns you. Another think that you should definitely do is tell other women in your program that, if similar things happen to them, you will be more than happy to advocate for their work. Make an explicit pact with the women and the cool guys that this cultural practice is bullshit and needs to stop.

And, just in case you’re wondering if you’re alone (harhar), make sure you check out this webpage.

Good luck, I’m 100% behind you!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Having gotten over my divorce, I’ve recently turned to on-line dating, like any other introverted nerdy technologist. If I don’t miss my guess, I’m older than your usual audience, let’s say somewhere past you, so I’ve come to accept that the dating process is capricious, and fate or luck, call that as you may, is sometimes the difference.

I’ve found the on-line bit more confusing than the tried-and-true methods of dating simply because it seems that the scoring systems are not working well for humans even if their computations seem fine on their side. Or maybe it’s better stated that they get 75% right and 30% is not just wrong, it’s wacky. For example, they’ll match me with a woman in my area, of the age range I prefer, and our lifestyles seem to match up, but she doesn’t want kids, which is the opposite for me. Or maybe, she loves cats, has cats and is allergic to dogs, where I have a dog. Or, even though I’ve stated a preference for monogamy, they pair me with polyamorous types.

My current approach is simply to get ‘close enough’ on the scoring and then fire away, but I’ve also thought that maybe approaching those who *really* don’t fit my score, just to see if the silly algorithms are working at all.

Your thoughts?

Creature Feature

Dear Creature,

Well, one thing about getting older is that we know what we like way more. This is good and bad. So for example, even just in my 40’s I’ve been figuring out all sorts of things about myself. And that’s cool for me, and make hitherto baffling things from my past way more clear, but that also make me less and less compatible with would-be dates. Luckily my husband and I are happily married, or else I’d be thoroughly undatable.

Or would I? Let me put it this way. When we were 18 we wouldn’t let “she is allergic to dogs” be the reason we were separated from our true love. We wouldn’t give two shits about dog allergies, in fact. So maybe the real problem here is that we somehow get convinced that petty incompatibilities matter deeply. Maybe we should just stop looking at categories that we decide our 18-year-old selves wouldn’t give two shits about.

And that’s the problem with dating sites, as I’ve complained about before. They ask the wrong questions, and the shitty irrelevant data which comes out of those wrong questions get us all confused about what’s important to us. I even made a new set of questions I thought would be better.

Here’s a suggestion: decide on a few things that matter in a strong way (straight woman, for example) and think about dates as things you actually do that exhibit compatibility. For example, propose to go to a musical event of an artist that you actually like, and see if she’s into it. Worst case you get to see a great performance. Or go to a movie you actually want to see with her. Build shared experiences that might bring you together, and explore that side of things. The dog allergies can be overcome if other stuff works.

Good luck!!

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 27, 2014 4 comments

Holy crap, peoples!

Aunt Pythia just counted up her readers’ questions and found super high quality (yay!) combined with super small quantity (boo!), a non-ideal situation. Do you know that there are currently fewer than two weeks’ worth of questions in the bin?! That means that next week might be extra short if nobody comes up with (sexual, optionally true) dilemmas between now and next Saturday.

It’s a situation!! If things don’t change Aunt Pythia will be forced to:

  1. Make up questions. Aunt Pythia has never done this but desperate times call for desperate measures.
  2. Force good friends to submit questions. Aunt Pythia has totally done this but it aint pretty.
  3. Answer questions that have been submitted to other advice columns. Aunt Pythia is actually kind of into this idea. Like, there are plenty of Dan Savage answers she disagrees with, although she loves the guy, obv.

So seriously consider mixing that shit up and:

Don’t forget to submit stolen question from old Dan Savage columns,

especially if you are one of Aunt Pythia’s good friends.

Got it? Good! Love ya!

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 a question on your recent post entitled Gillian Tett gets it very wrong on racial profiling, when you say:

Specifically, this means that the fact that black Americans are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession even though the two groups use the drug at similar rates would be seen by such a model (or rather, by the people who deploy the model) as a fact of nature that is neutral and true. But it is in fact a direct consequence of systemic racism.”

Racism is not the only interpretation of data. Another possible explanation is that black Americans are less educated and cannot hide marijuana from the cops as well as whites. So it is a correlate, not a cause. Had president Obama done something about education in the US I don’t think we’d see such terrible racial disparity.


Dear NYCN,

Not sure why this is an Aunt Pythia question instead of a comment on that post, but let me respond by, a “WHAA?”. Clearly black kids are much more educated about cops than the average white kids. Are you kidding?

But you do bring up a great point: white kids smoke pot in their own rooms in suburbia, and it’s harder for them to get caught. Black kids maybe don’t have privacy, so they end up doing more pot smoking in public, which means they get caught more. But obviously both whites and blacks walk around with pot in their pockets, so at the end of the day there’s serious racial bias.

This reminds me that I heard a group of Stuyvesant parents met with cops in the Stuy neighborhood and tried to make a deal that, when their kids were caught smoking pot in the nearby park, the cops would just bring them back to school rather than arresting them. Imagine that deal being made in Harlem.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I saw you asked some good questions at David Madigan’s IDSE Colloquium event this week. I thought it was a really compelling talk (and that Madigan is dreamy…). What were you reactions?

Anyways, when thinking about colloquium in the shower, I started to think about the word. It’s interesting that it’s essentially the same word as colloquial, yet to me they have opposite meanings. Do you think there’s truth to a colloquium really being colloquial?

Curious At the Colloquium

Dear Curious,

First of all, Madigan is awesome and I saw an earlier version of that talk before, in fact I wrote it up in Doing Data Science (Chapter 12). And yes, he’s indeed dreamy, a rare man of integrity. I am a groupie of his, and I don’t mind admitting it. After the talk I gave him a hug and felt a tingle.

Great question about the word colloquium. According to this online Oxford Dictionary, it basically just means “talk together”. Similarly, colloquial just means “conversational”. It makes sense. I wish more things were that informal combined with great.

I just got back from a Day of Data at Yale and I met a guy from the NIH, a really cool motorcycle-driving scientist in fact, and I told him all about Madigan. So I hope that helps the word get out too.

One question, what exactly were you doing in the shower whilst thinking about the talk? Just curious.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m returning back to teaching math after a long illness. I’m starting slow with a modest calculus course at a modest university, somewhere along the north atlantic coast. The budget crisis has taken its toll on the department. The students are barely prepared (serious gaps in algebra and trig.) I have 3 contact hours per week, no discussion sections, no graders.

I’m finding myself with a strange dilemma: should I cut lecturing down to a minimum and rely heavily on the book and youTube videos, while using most of class time for problem-solving and giving insightful examples, or should I go the other way: lecture and relegate homework and quizzes to the online platform that comes with the book.

Please help! I feel like I’m trying to tutor in the midst of lecture and run out of time every time.

Shy and Confounded


Dear Shy,

Given that there are serious gaps in their knowledge, I’d probably try to do at least a few worked-out examples with the students during class to make sure they can handle the mechanics of the solutions in addition to the conceptual ideas you’re presenting.

So maybe that means a 20 minute “review” of the new idea of the day, and then 40 minutes devoted to working out examples, with lots of interaction from the students so you can see what their gaps are and then make announcements about “things to remember”, basically showing them how to do stuff from algebra or trig.

Also consider asking them what is most useful for them to learn the stuff most efficiently in the three hours you have together. And finally, keep in mind that the quiet ones will probably be the ones that feel most behind, so make sure you don’t just listen to the loud people! Maybe a survey monkey?

But I definitely like your idea of offering them lots of online resources to get practice with this stuff if they are having trouble. I definitely think they should be encouraged to do that as well. Keep track of what works so next semester you have something to build on.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m just starting a tenure track job at a well-known place. Another more prestigious university is currently considering giving me a tenured full professorship. At what point do I mention this? I don’t want to mention it too early, because of course it might turn out nothing happens. But it does also seems like an opportunity for a market correction. Variation: How would a tall handsome man handle this?

Wanting Info on Negotiating Contract Extension


I don’t think you can mention it until the offer is firm. I don’t think a tall man would either, however handsome.

The real question is, how do you handle the negotiation between the two places once they are both actively recruiting you? Some people would try to start a bidding war, some wouldn’t. But since I’m one of those people who wouldn’t, I’m not the right person to ask about how to do that. If you want advice about that, write back and I’ll get my good friend who is the king of bidding wars to weigh in.

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 20, 2014 6 comments

It was a long week! Very emotional!

And to top it all off, last night Aunt Pythia and her sweetie and some besties went to see – what else? – Ivo Van Hove’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. Aunt Pythia’s review of this deeply felt, Swedish introspection and investigation into the darkest corners of marital communication, and lack thereof, can be summarized in three words:

more sex, please.

Sadly, that may be the exact review you will give Aunt Pythia’s column today, although keep in mind she’s done her best to foster sex-related questions, and moreover she generously doles out sex-related advice, even when it isn’t called for.

So please have pity on her, and of course don’t forget to:

please think of something (sexual) 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’m applying to some math PhD programs this fall. Some of the applications ask me to specify faculty members at that university whom I would like to work with, and I’ve also been given the general advice to reach out to professors at various schools in order to get my name out there and increase my chances of admission. I have a couple of questions about this:

1) I feel like professors must be inundated with these emails from applicants, and that this would be a really annoying aspect of being a professor. How can I be minimally annoying?

2) I feel like professors must know that students (including myself) are angling for admission offers and not necessarily driven by the pure motive of academic interest. I’m not suggesting that I would lie to or try to manipulate someone whose work I wasn’t interested in, but the truth is I have never before gone around contacting mathematicians who have published interesting papers, so it feels disingenuous to do so only now that I hope to gain something. Is there any way to do this without feeling dishonest? Also, should I be explicit about my intention to name-drop them on the application, or should I pretend my motives are less self-serving?

3) Although I have some general ideas about areas of math that interest me (e.g. Representation Theory), I don’t have a really specific idea about the kind of research or thesis I will do– and because I’m just starting out, I don’t have the background to understand the papers and research on these professors’ CV’s. Should I just contact people in Algebra or whatever field I’m thinking about, or do I need to decide that “I want to contribute to your research on specific esoteric topic X” or whatever?

Although I think I have a reasonably solid application in terms of GPA, test scores, and letters of recommendation, I have essentially no research background or professional networking. So I really would like to do whatever I can to bolster my chances of getting into a program. Any advice you can give would be much appreciated. Even if that advice is simply to forget about sending annoying requests to strangers and just apply with what I have.

Getting Responses About Doctorate

Dear GRAD,

Here’s the thing, people like to take students. So if you express interest in working with them, they will like it, while they will of course also know it’s partly because you want to get into grad school, but that’s okay and normal. Of course there are some people that already have too many students, or actually don’t like taking students, so if you are ignored don’t take it personally. But in general it’s a flattering introduction, and people like to be flattered.

Plus, at the end of the day math is a community of people, and the sooner you start getting to know the people the better. So I’d suggest you really do reach out to people and take a look around at their papers and do your best to understand the gist of them. Ideally you would be able to meet them in person, say at a visit to the department or something, but barring that introducing yourself over email is fine, as long as it’s not a form letter.

Tell them about what you’ve read of their work, what interests you, and mention that you’re graduating now and applying to grad schools. Not offensive. And good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m currently a math postdoc planning to transition to data science/something similar. The decision to leave academia hasn’t been easy, and one thing making it hard is that I really enjoy teaching. I particularly like teaching probability/stats/data analysis and I think the data journalism program you’re running is really cool! I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on (i) is it possible to stay involved in education in some form as a non-academic mathematician and (ii) if so, what to do to create these opportunities? I don’t plan to spend time on this early in my industry career as I need to establish myself professionally, but I hope to have opportunities to share what I love with others at some point down the line.

Pursuing A New Direction Actually


The sign-offs are killing it today.

OK so I agree, the worst part about leaving academic math for industry is that you don’t get to teach, and teaching is super fun. I’ve made do with going to math camp every now and then to get a dose of teaching, and more recently I worked at the Lede Program in data journalism, which allowed me to teach as well.

Suggestion: tutoring? Taking a few weeks to work at summer programs? Signing up to teach night classes? Becoming an adjunct at a local university and teaching whatever? All these things are possible.

There are also quite a few data science training programs springing up around the country that you might be able to work at, so take a look at that as well. Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Aunt Pythia starts this recent column by saying “Aunt Pythia kind of blew her load, so to speak, on the sex questions last week”.

But on MY PC, there is no update between 9th and 30th August, so my question is “Where is the 23rd August sexfest?”

Seeks Titillating Internet Material

Dear STIM,

Here it is. I got there by going to the front page and searching for “Aunt Pythia sex”. It’s really not that difficult, but I can understand why you might have been distracted. Plus, thank you for letting me link to that, it’s saving an otherwise sexless column.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a particle physics grad student who knows embarrassingly little about statistical analysis. For me, a significance of 5 sigma means a discovery, and 3 sigma stuff is ‘interesting’ (but almost always goes away with more data).

A while ago, I came upon this article. I am sure you heard/read about it. It basically says elite male-run labs hire female postdocs at 36%, while elite female-run labs hire female postdocs at 47% while the female postdocs are 39% of the pool. This is presented as “Male PIs don’t usually hire female postdocs”.

I was very confused when I read this, because to me male PIs were hiring at a level close to the average number of female postdocs available. As you can imagine, the female-run lab number is higher because there are ~20% female PIs in their data. So, that skews the numbers. They also give some significance (p-value) for their results, but how robust is the p-value? Or, what is the significant result here? Please give me a lecture on this!

Significance Is Greatly Mind Abusing


Physicists are kind of spoiled for data. They often just collect way more data than other people can, and their experiments don’t typically affect the results nearly as much, nor are they as messy, as you see in human experiments.

Anyway, a few points.

  1. I don’t understand your argument for why the female numbers are naturally skewed, unless you’re saying that there are so few data points that the averages tend to be far away from the expected average, which is true, but it could have just as well been below average, at least theoretically. Correct me if I’m mistaken.
  2. Not knowing more about this field, I don’t know the answer to a bunch of important questions I would ask. For example, do some fields expect you to work very long hours which would be tough for young mothers? Or are some fields for other reasons more friendly to women, for example if the hours were flexible, or if the wages were more transparent, or if the leaders of the field were more welcoming? All sorts of reasons that women might bunch together in certain fields and thus in certain labs.
  3. Most importantly, this paper seems to think there’s a natural experiment going on, but there almost never is. There are almost always confounding factors such as the above.
  4. So, if we really wanted to say men are less willing to hire women, we’d need to set up a randomized experiment and send a bunch of resumes that differ only in the gender of the applicant, and see what happens next.
  5. Having said all that, I didn’t actually read the paper, so I might be overly skeptical of the results. I have pancakes to make pretty quick so there’s a constraint in place here.
  6. In any case every time a randomized experiment has been performed, to my knowledge, there has been systemic sexism in place. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there is actual sexism at work here, even if I’m not convinced this is proof of it.
  7. Finally, you should take a look at t-tests, which you probably already know about, but here’s the reason: you can never get a 5-sigma results when your n is small. In other words, your test result, no matter what you do, is a function both of the amount of sexism that exists in a given lab and the number of labs you are evaluating, and you can’t do much about the latter even if the former is substantial.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 13, 2014 16 comments

Do you know what Aunt Pythia has been occupied with recently? Yes, you guessed it, she has a fantabulous new knitting pattern and she just can’t get enough of it. Here’s a recent work-in-progress pic:



I hope you know how much Aunt Pythia must love you considering how hard it was to tear herself away from such a beautiful project. So please, love her back, and after loving her madly, don’t forget to:

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.


My dear Aunt Pythia propagating loving introspective nerdy girls,

This morning, I am going to imagine sitting in between your lovely kids to enjoy crepes and vent with you. Today’s vent is that I have been highly disturbed by this week’s coverage of the Fields medal (putting aside for the moment the question of whether the Fields medal should exist in the first place). One article I read compared being female in math with being a handicapped competitive athlete.

WTF? This is the news that is being reported and the way people are reacting? What is the most healthy way I can respond to this and still enjoy my Saturday morning crepes?

SINGing Introspective Nerdy Girl

P.S. I also read the following social media post of a male scientist: “I know I’ll get shit for this, but doesn’t it seem a bit weird that the first woman to win this is butch and wears men’s clothing? Is this because she has a man’s brain, or because she got chosen because she’s man-like?”

I’m not sure it would be a good idea to publicize this, but I would like to ask how I should respond in this situation (feel free to paraphrase the quote if you see fit). I would personally love to publicly shame the male scientist, but I also wanted to make sure I am responding in a way that is helpful and positive to anybody who is reading my message.

In case you are able to see his Facebook posts, the male scientist is “Brian Raney” at USC.


Hmmm… not sure what I can add to this post about the topic, but here goes.

I guess the best way to think about this is as a totally non-mathematical PR thing, which is heavily steeped in weird and fucked up expectations due to historical sexism. As for the USC guy, it would obviously have been infinitely better for him to say something like, “Maryam was awarded the Fields Medal because she did some incredible stellar mathematics.” But there you go, some people miss opportunities to say the right thing. Or maybe he first said the right thing and then he added a bunch of other things after that, who knows. I don’t even care enough to check on his Facebook page. Who cares about what one random guys says?

As for overall butchiness and wearing men’s clothes, lots of female mathematicians do that (including myself many days!), and it’s actually not an uninteresting observation about women in math and other STEM fields, but the phenomenon is certainly not limited to Fields Medal winners.

If you don’t mind me going off into a slight tangent (thanks!), let me also mention that men’s clothes are, generally speaking, great for looking totally unobjectionable, not getting harassed or hit on, and not evoking catcalls (a big deal here in NYC!) compared to short skirts and high heels, and if men could wear them they totally would. Oh wait, they already do.

My point being, there are lots of reasonable reasons to wear men’s clothes besides being a lesbian (although being a lesbian is of course a great reason! And please include suspenders when possible! Fetching!). Being taken seriously as a scholar comes to mind. I defend everyone’s rights to trousers and a boring button-down shirt.

Or, you know, a short skirt and heels if you wanna sex it up and get some attention. Or for the more full-figured gal, a bodycon dress:


The key is to get what you want, when you want it.

Keep singing!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a 24-year-old young woman in New York and I consider myself pretty lucky to absolutely LOVE my job as a “data analyst”. I make great money, my boss trusts me in a sort of crazy way, I can work remotely whenever I want to, and after 6 months, I’ve come to truly believe that my company is an awesome place to work and a pretty great group of people (I guess you could say I’ve been drinking the free chai tea + almond milk). Though I did balk for a second and wonder if I’m just a SQL database monkey, I’m proud to say that if I have to spend 1/7 of my day in SQL but get to spend the rest of it messing around with Python pandas and learning to be a command line ninja, give me a banana and call me Koko.

Now, I won’t have this autonomy forever. This is only my first job, and we’re rapidly expanding, which includes building out an ACTUAL data science department. Without going into too much detail, our platform currently delivers some basic analytics to our customers, and we want to beef up these metrics into something they value us for and, ideally, become dependent on.

We are hiring a director (read: a new boss for me) and we’ve interviewed a ton of people. As you’ve mentioned, a good data scientist is hard to find! I’m pretty outspoken and have spoken up about presenting our clients our with not-quite-as-accurate-as-I-myself-would-like metrics (and I drink chai tea here, not the kool aid). I think I could be a GOOD data scientist someday, but I need the right person to guide me. Most of these candidates are Google Analytics or Tableau jockeys who don’t have any interest in my sweet matplotlib graphs with opacity depending on client billing amount! circumference depending on length of time with us! and so forth.

Last week, I met a candidate that I KNOW will never be topped. She (SHE!!) is also outspoken, knows her shit, cares about data AND ALSO cares about stuff besides data (!) and just is certainly my perfect Yoda. Unfortunately, because the job market is a real thing and a good data scientist is hard to find, I fear that she will not take this job in favor of a better offer elsewhere, financially or otherwise (probably just a bigger company with more data than mine).

Aunt Pythia, HOW do I get her to choose my small company?? This feels to me like the kind of career-changing, perhaps even LIFE changing moment that you have to do EVERYTHING you can to make happen. What would you advise a young woman to do? I have scruples in life, but am not above planting bed bugs at the offices of her competing offer.

Most Enthusiastic Neophyte To Ever Enquire


You are seriously awesome and you don’t need a Yoda to tell you that, although we’d all love a Yoda.

“PATIENCE YOU MUST HAVE my young padawan”

“PATIENCE YOU MUST HAVE my young padawan”

Here’s the thing. I sense in you the power to be a great data scientist someday, not because your fave boss will or will not take that job, but because you have the obvious urge to do something cool and fun with your life, and because you have integrity, and because you are too smart to trick yourself into thinking what you’re doing is great when it isn’t. Trust in yourself. And if your company doesn’t hire someone awesome, go find yourself another job. Keep learning, keep striving.

Love always,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a junior mathematician just starting to navigate the depth of academia. I am so disillusioned by what I see. I thought being a mathematician was supposed to be this wonderful thing, wherein I exchange ideas with people of similar interests, make friends, and not working but playing.

Instead, I have met so many mean people, who hide what they are doing from me, some who ignore me because they don’t think that I’m good enough, and some who try to intimidate me. When I was a grad student, I even had a student by the same advisor, who never spoke to me once while we were students together, except to try to embarrass me during my talks.

While there are nice people in academia, and I still love being a mathematician, I sometimes become really sad about the mean people in academia. Sometimes, I feel so disillusioned and burned out, then I am too upset to be thinking about math. I feel that I would be so much more productive if only I could deal with these feelings, and I am often frustrated by the fact. Is leaving academia my only solution?


Dear Disillusioned,

You are right on all accounts! You would be more productive if you could deal with these feelings, and people are mean, and leaving academia would help, although not in the way you think.

Here’s the thing. I left academic math in part because people were so mean. They were really mean to me, and especially because I was a woman, and especially because I was married to a man who was highly respected. It was a situation.

But after leaving academics, mostly what I’ve realized is how most places contain mean people, and academics are really not all that good at being mean. No offense to mean mathematicians! But really they are like, small-fry mean. If you want to see hugely assholic behavior, work in finance for a few years.

So I’m wondering if this might help – and it might not, of course – but if you can, engage in the following thought experiment: you have left academics, and you go into some other field, and people are mean there too, except for a few nice people with whom you can bitch about the meanies. Then you leave that job and go in search of another job, where maybe there are fewer assholes but also you don’t get paid as well and there are other problems that come up because of that, or because the job stability is rough, or etc. etc.

Then after that long thought experiment, you might realize that as long as there are resources to be fought over, there will be fights, and the question is how to ignore all the stupid bickering and get some math done, because after all math is beautiful and awesome and it’s not math’s fault that all these people are mean.

Good luck!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My colleagues and I at the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts would like to know why the word “data” is plural while the phrase “big data” is singular.

Your singular,
Big Datum

Dear Big Datum,

OK here’s where I am on this issue. It’s always singular. Always. Look at the data! All the data points to the same conclusion! There might be several data points that offer alternative preferences, but those are outliers. Every time I hear someone say something incredibly awkward like, “Are your organization’s data as clear as they can be?” I just wanna retch. Don’t do it. You just sound like a grammar nazi, and nobody likes those people.

You asked!

Aunt Pythia


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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia gives it up for Polly

Dearest readers. Dearest, dearest readers. Aunt Pythia was just about to crack open her dog-eared google doc of questions when she happened across this Ask Polly column which blew her away (hat tip Julie Steele).

It’s entitled Ask Polly: Why Don’t the Men I Date Ever Truly Love Me? and it’s just about the best advice Aunt Pythia has ever seen for a whole lot of people, men and women. In fact she’s seriously considering stealing certain phrases out of this one column for future use, including the following:

  1. Is it time to stop being so good and start discovering what’s going to transform your life into something big and vibrant and shocking?
  2. Block the “other” from this picture. No more audience. You are the cherished and the cherisher.
  3. Fuck wondering if you’re lovable. Fuck asking someone else, “Am I there yet?” Fuck listening for the answer.

Bravo, Polly! And readers, please go read it.

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice: the nerdy edition

Aunt Pythia is ginormously and ridonkulously excited to be here. She just got back from a nifty bike ride to the other side of the Hudson and took this picture of this amazing city on this amazing day:


The bike traffic on the GWB is not too bad at 7:10am.

OK, so full disclosure. Aunt Pythia kind of blew her load, so to speak, on the sex questions last week, so she’s making do with coyly answering nerdy questions. Because that’s what we got.

I hope you enjoy her efforts, and even if you despise them – especially if you despise them – don’t forget to:

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.


Hi Aunt Pythia,

I’m a math student at MIT, where you did a postdoc. I’m also into computers, and am considering working in some finance classes. I could see myself being happy working for some big financial company that I don’t really care about, as long as I have interesting problems to work on, make a ton of money, and have bright people I get to work with.

My interests right now are in very pure math, I get chills just thinking about categorical-theoretic concepts. I’m planning to learn commutative algebra and algebraic geometry soon. I’m also likely to take stochastic calculus.

What kind of math did you do? Any tips on if taking the pure math I love will be of use, or at least get me “cred” with financial companies?

I do love math, and seeing that you did math at MIT and have seen this world of things, maybe you have some advice to offer me.

Thank you dearly.

Math Cult

Dear MC,

Don’t do it!

Don’t take the math to get “cred” with financial companies. Do what is sexy and beautiful to you. If you love category theory, do that, then do algebra and algebraic geometry. I did number theory in the form of arithmetic algebraic geometry myself. It’s awesomely beautiful and I don’t regret one moment of it.

Let’s say you do decide to go into the “real world.” At the end of the day, if you can do that math stuff we’ve been talking about, you can learn other stuff too. So I’m not going to worry about you on the technical side of things.

On the other side of things, I’d like you to rethink the idea that you “don’t mind who you work for as long as you have interesting problems.” Is that really true? Once you leave pure math there are real applications of your work, and they affect real people. Shit gets real real quick and stuff matters, and I urge you to think it through some more.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Do all mathematicians visualize their problems? From a logical viewpoint there are a lot of mathematical spaces that don’t map onto an imagined 3d workspace but on limited conversations with working mathematicians they seem to me to do it at least at some stage of problem solving.

(I’m more of a physicist who visualizes nearly everything so maybe I’m misreading them.)

Inner glimmer

Dear Inner,

Most, but not all. I once had a conversation with someone who couldn’t understand my drawing of a geometric map between spaces. I was explaining the concept visually (or at least I thought I was!) but he forced me to write it down with double sums and formulas, and I thought that was the weirdest thing ever, but that’s how it became understandable to him.

In general we do think visually, although we really can’t think beyond three dimensions (even though we pretend we can). I guess time makes it 4. Most geometers I know, ironically, don’t have a very good working sense of 3 dimensions, and definitely don’t have a good sense of direction!

Come to think of it my sample is too small, so I’m mostly just saying that for fun. It would be neat to get actual statistics on that. Maybe if I’m ever pulled into going to JMM again I’ll make people fill out forms. Oh wait, I’m going to JMM this January.

I can ask about this, it’s a nice question! Readers, what else should I poll math nerds on?

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m an American mutt and for awhile I was annoyed when people asked “Where are you from” or “What’s your nationality”. I think I was sensitive to it because kids wanted to narrow down exactly which ethnic slurs to use. But as an adult, mostly people are just curious, and I’m happy to share since I’m curious about them too.

When I meet someone with an accent, I’m curious about them and their background, what it’s like in their home country, how they came to the US, etc.

What is an appropriate way to ask about someone’s ethnic background or country of origin? It seems like you should be able to ask anyone this question; it just seems rude when that person is different from you. Do you know what I mean?

WHy Ask That Rude qUestion


I like the subtle sign-off!

Here’s the thing, I think you nailed it. If your intention is to be mean, then don’t ask it. If your intention is to be friendly and to make a connection, then go ahead and ask it! I always ask cabbies where they come from, and then I get to learn about their countries. I have never experienced someone who doesn’t want to talk to me about their home country, and I’ve made quite a few friends. I’ve been invited to so many countries for visits, and that is always so incredibly generous and sweet! People are amazing.

Of course, some people just don’t do this kind of small-talk, and I get that too. It’s not for everyone. But it’s super fun for us extroverts.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

First off, you’re blog is both entertaining and informative, and you’ve found the sweet spot combination of the two that makes it addictive.

I find your work with the Lede program at Columbia fascinating and relevant to the growing, amorphous “big data” movement. I am a frequent visitor of websites such as Fivethirtyeight, which Nate Silver has rebranded as a news source that derives its stories from statistics and big data analytics. Even other sources, such as The Atlantic, have begun to follow suit and incorporate large statistical analyses into some of their stories. This experiment of basing our news stories on statistics brings hope that we can move closer to the ideal of an unbiased account.

In light of this new format (and your school), what sources do you consider the best? Are there any that you visit to get an insightful statistical perspective on the news. Or do you side with the criticism that many of these sites fuel a sensationalist, biased view of the world intended to spawn viral stories?

Will we ever find the right place for statistics in the news?

Considering unbiased reality in our ubiquitous (news)stories

Dear Curious,

Holy crap, nice sign-off. And thanks for being addicted to mathbabe! All my evil plans are working. Time to start on the next phase… moo-hooo-hahahahahaha.

OK, so here’s the thing. We will never have unbiased accounts. Never. At the very least we will have bias in the way that data is collected.

What I’ve spent the summer talking to my students about is getting used to the fact that there will always be bias, and how we therefore do our best to be at least somewhat aware of them, and try very hard not to obscure them. Transparency is the new objectivity!

This is of course disappointing to people who want there to be “one truth,” but that’s how science is. After a while we get used to the disappointment and we can all appreciate some really good signal/noise ratios.

As for the right place for statistics in the news, I think we’re figuring that out right now, and I’m excited to be part of it. And holy shit, have you seen the new ProPublica work on the Louisiana coast? Those guys are killing it.


Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

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