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Aunt Pythia’s advice

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

This is a pic from 1900.

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

Fun facts about the High Bridge:

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

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

After cleansing yourself from today’s drivel, please:

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

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

 

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

She sells sea–oh, screw it.

Dear SSS-osi,

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

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

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

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

Public service, world, you’re welcome.

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

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

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhat Preoccupied Individual Not Suited To Experience Relationships

Dear SPINSTER,

Fantastic sign-off, wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

Almost Going Into Industry

Dear AGII,

A few comments:

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

Hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia

——

Hi Aunt Pythia!

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

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

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

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

Future Caregiver

Dear FC,

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

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

Aunt Pythia

——

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

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

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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

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

980x323_ride_dipperfromocean

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

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

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

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

Inverted Matrix

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

Dear Inverted,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

Given Up Real Love

Dear GURL,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Pythia

——

Aunt Pythia,

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

Why the extra salt?

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

Maria Schneider

Dear Maria,

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

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

Auntie P

——

Aunt Pythia,

Do you like big butts, or can you lie?

Music Is eXcellent – Always Like Appreciating Tunes

Dear MIXALAT,

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

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

Love,

Aunt Pythia

——

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

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

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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia asked a few days ago whether her advice would be better dispense in video format, and there was near consensus: no indeed.

You have spoken with one voice, loud and clear! And that is why Aunt Pythia has readers, dear readers, and not viewers. She toasts to you.

Holy crap I want a mimosa.

Holy crap I want a mimosa.

But readers, please read this next line carefully, not all is well. As of today, Aunt Pythia only has enough questions for one more week of her advice column.

That’s right! Aunt Pythia is starving for ethical conundrums! She’s thirsty for romantic entanglements and she’s eager to ponder, muse, and ruminate on your deepest and darkest quandaries. Let her help! Please please please:

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

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

——

Aunt Pythia,

Would you be willing to share your recipe for those identity crisis crepes? They look delicious and very helpful.

Handling Undeniable Nagging Gripes Requires Yummies

Dear HUNGRY,

Why of course. I use a modified Joy of Cooking recipe – modified because I use salted butter and 2% milk, and the recipe book usually calls for unsalted butter and whole milk. I also triple the recipe to feed my kids and the neighbor kids, which I happily present. Mix in a large bowl:

  • 2 and 1/4 cups white flour
  • 1 slightly rounded teaspoon of salt
  • 1 flat tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/4 cup or so of powdered sugar (I just shake a bit into the bowl)

Then add:

  • 3 cups of milk
  • 6 eggs
  • a large dash of vanilla

Mix everything until it’s relatively smooth. Next, find a nonstick pan (or two if you’re ambitious) and put a generous pat of butter on the pan on medium heat. Spread the butter around to coat the entire pan, and when it’s frothy add a ladle spoon of batter, spreading it out over the whole pan by tipping the pan this way and that. Turn it over as soon as the spatula lets you, and cook on the other side for about the same amount of time (maybe 3 minutes for each side). Then put your finished crepe on a platter and continue. Makes about 9 crepes.

I serve the pile of crepes on a table set with cut-up fruit, nutella, jam, syrup, and powdered sugar. When I’m feeling Dutch I also offer bacon and eggs and I call them “pannekoeken” instead of crepes.

To make them “identity crisis” specific, simply use extra nutella at the end and pair with mimosas.

Aunt Pythia

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Aunt Pythia,

How do I convince myself, in the face of half a lifetime of evidence to the contrary, that there are women who want to date me and might even eventually want to sleep with me?

Forty And Increasingly Lonely

Dear Forty,

I actually have quite a bit of experience giving advice in this realm, but not knowing anything more about you is going to severely limit my advice. So, if you were here with me I’d ask you a bunch of questions about your habits, attitude, and previous attempts. I’ll do my best to give you general advice though.

First, make sure you exercise regularly. This doesn’t make you lose weight, contrary to popular marketing belief, but it gets you out of the house, wards against depression, makes you feel good in your body, and forces you to take regular showers. All good things.

Second, figure out how to meet people. A lot of people, preferably in a female-dominated setting. I suggest joining a class at your local community college on cooking or pottery or meditation. Really nice people go to such classes, and they are often open to meeting new people. If you have the inclination, go to church, or even better, choir. There are basically no straight men in choir, and those that there are get snatched up.

Third, examine your self-confidence. Figure out mysterious and compelling things about yourself and practice making them even cooler. About half of self-confidence is the belief that other people will want to spend time with you, so practice being a good listener and asking polite and encouraging questions. Don’t forget to flatter people (when it is deserved and not creepy), and figure out how to accept compliments graciously as well.

Finally, ask people out a LOT. Make it a habit to put yourself out there, in a non-threatening way, pretty much every time you actually want to see someone a second time. Sometimes it will work, other times it won’t, but it’s the only way you’ll ever start a relationship. And it doesn’t have to be romantic, either: asking someone out to coffee to continue a conversation is something that people do, and you should be sure you do it whenever you feel like it.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. if you have more specific questions, feel free to email me personally. My email address is on my “About” page.

——

Aunt Pythia,

Is there any part of these arguments with merit?

K

Dear K,

I actually feel dumber for having read – well, skimmed actually – that article. Good news is he gave himself away early with the word “shrill”; after that I knew he was a woman hater.

The only positive I came away with is that I might want to dye my armpit hair blue to match my head hair.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

So, Mathbabe says that some smarts and math skills are essential for being a data scientist. In particular, mathbabe says if one lacks the quantitative prowess to invert a matrix, then they do not have the math aptitude to be a decent data scientist. Does someone have to be able to get the concept instantly and effortlessly when they see it for the first time?

I was a humanities (history, specifically) major in college and I currently work in education, and I want to pursue an MS in statistics. I can invert a matrix pretty comfortably now, but it did take some effort (study group, office hours) to figure out how to do it when I encountered the concept for the first time in a linear algebra class. I am necessarily aiming to be a data scientist, per se. I see data as a promising and powerful tool for advancing problems I really care about, and I want to be able to meaningfully interact with people who analyze data to understand what they have done and make sense of what it can and cannot do.

Depressed in the Suburbs

Dear Depressed,

Just to be crystal clear, I don’t actually think everyone needs to go around practicing how to actually invert a matrix. Personally I’ve memorized the inversion of a 2 by 2 matrix, but if I were to invert a 3 by 3 matrix I’d have to derive the formula.

The real purpose I have in talking about matrix inversion is to point out the computational fragility of inverting a “nearly uninvertible” matrix, namely a matrix whose determinant is very close to 0.

Why, you might ask, would I have to worry about this? Well, for two reasons. First, when you’re dealing with real world data, everything is an approximation of truth. That means that if you have two vectors that are theoretically pointing in the same direction, they will only very approximately do so when the computation is worked out. For the same reason, when you have a matrix which theoretically should have dependent rows or columns, when you actually calculate the determinant, it will not be zero, but simply a very very small number, say 10^{-14}.

Next, when you invert a matrix, you do a bunch of things and then divide by the determinant at the end. Of course, you’re not supposed to “invert” an uninvertible matrix, but you of course can invert a matrix that has incredibly small but non-zero determinant. What you end up with is garbage.

OK, here’s why I’m telling you all this. Because the data scientist’s job is mostly to figure out why their model is fucking up massively. Models never work the first, second, or 17th time they are run, so you’d better be good at understanding what’s going wrong. One thing that often goes wrong is trying to invert a matrix that is not invertible, but it doesn’t manifest that way as the above story explains. So the data scientist has to start with ridiculous garbage answers, and backtrack to the actual problem, and knowing something about how a matrix is inverted is critical in this story.

Of course, matrix inversion isn’t the only example of the mathematical detective work inherent in a data scientist’s job. It’s kind of a metaphor for what you might end up doing as a data scientist. But it’s also a good place to start.

Anyway, none of this stuff is easy or effortless, so throw away that misconception immediately. I’m sure that someone with general intelligence can learn this stuff. I just think that there’s plenty of stuff they’d actually need to know.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

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

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

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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Hippety hop, chop chop, it’s time to get on the sexy advice bus. Aunt Pythia has already whipped up some delicious mimosas for today’s brunchy discussion!

I can't drink all of these myself, people.

I can’t drink all of these myself, people.

Aunt Pythia is oddly exuberant this morning, folks, and hopes her positivity comes through loud and clear. She’s extremely happy with the questions you all have come up with, and hope she gets many more chances to be an obnoxiously opinionated loudmouth in the near future.

Which will happen if you continue to supply her with your wonderful and genuinely interesting questions! Please do! Before you go,

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

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

——

Aunt Pythia,

Have you read “Sperm Wars” yet? Looking forward to the review.

Bated Breath

Dear BB,

To tell you the truth, it’s a slog. I am doing my best to read it – it’s the only nighttime reading I have next to my bed – but the obstacles are real.

For example, it’s pretty violent. There are lots of stories of men who abuse wives and children. That makes me upset, even though I know it happens all the time. Next problem: it’s extremely unromantic, talking in a weirdly clinical and almost hostile way about what constitutes arousal. Even so, at times it gets pretty technical, discussing different kinds of sperm hiding in various places along the Fallopian tubes, for example, waiting to kill other sperm or fertilize the eggs.

I guess the overall feeling I’m getting is that it’s dated, and that the scientific certainty it presents of “why people do what they do” with respect to sex is a huge turn-off for me. I’d like to see theories and then evidence, with measurements of uncertainty. I’d like to become part of the process of puzzling out whether a certain habit we humans have fallen into is due to our genetics or our socialization. Instead, the book lays it out like it’s all a done deal, and since I have trouble believing that it’s all so completely understood, I end up not knowing what to believe.

Here are some good things about the book. I think it’s interesting how the author treats women and men as equals in the scheming around sex. Too often you hear stories about philandering men without understanding what women stand to gain by sex. Also, it does a good job explaining how women have more to lose by being discovered as cheaters, and what that implies. The book also makes a convincing case that women’s fertility cycles are obscure by construction: it serves the human race in countless ways to confuse people – both men and women – as to when women might actually get pregnant. In particular, sex often serves as a way for humans to interact, and not just to get pregnant. Even so, there are ways that pregnancy can be planned but not planned, and that is intriguing as well.

I’m guessing this is the closest to a review that I’m going to write, and let me finish by wishing out loud that someone would take on the subject anew and do it with a bit more rigor.

Next up: Sex at Dawn. We’ll see if this book is the book I’m requesting. I am guessing it is not.

Aunt Pythia

——

Aunt Pythia,

Here is a question that has puzzled me for a long time: what exactly is a “date”? I was reminded of my puzzlement when you wrote “It doesn’t have to be a date if she doesn’t wish it to be, but it could be if she wants.” in your answer to HORNY’s question. I tried to imagine how I would behave as the male participant in each of those two scenarios, and here is what I came up with:

If it is a date:
I would dress nicely, be polite, ask her personal questions, share personal details about myself, and pay the bill at the end of the meal.

If it is NOT a date:
I would dress nicely, be polite, ask her personal questions, share personal details about myself, and pay the bill at the end of the meal.

So I’m worried that if there is truly a difference between a date and a non-date then I’m probably doing one of them all wrong. Of course there are some cases where the difference is clear; for instance, if it were a business dinner then I would probably limit personal conversation and propose splitting the bill.

Doesn’t Act Too Extreme

Dear DATE,

Great question. I personally have never been on a date, so I’m really not one to talk, or to define the term.

Let me rephrase that. I’ve been on dates, but I rarely would have described them that way beforehand. Instead they evolved into a date. By the end of the date I knew they were dates.

OK, I’m lying. I have gone out on “date nights” with my husband, where we had to get a babysitter. But that doesn’t count for your question.

But I substantially agree, “going on a date” is confusing and bewildering, and naming it is a large part of the confusion. Sorry for adding to that.

Here’s a confession which I am happy to spill. I’ve always had a confusing mixture of envy and disgust with people who “go on Dates” with a capital D. First of all, they seem to be completely at ease describing them that way, which already makes me hate them. It always seems so artificial to imagine a man dressing nicely and expecting me to dress nicely, and talking politely over dinner (and maybe a movie), and letting the man pay for everything, and then maybe (oh my!) a kiss on the front porch at the end of it. God forbid if the guy brings me flowers at the beginning of the evening, I might barf all over them. How can anyone be happy with that scenario?! Then envy comes when I imagine something so confusing becoming so simple. But the envy is quickly squashed again by the disgust and the smell of imaginary barf.

So no, I’m not a big fan of that whole paradigm. It’s an arbitrary and misogynistic construct. It makes the woman a passive receiver and at the same time puts too much pressure on the man to perform. Fuck Dating.

On the other hand, I really like people, and if someone wants to have dinner with me, I’m in! And of course, I don’t want to feel frumpy, and so I’d wear something that makes me feel adventurous and fun. If other people show up, then it’s great, but if it’s just the two of us, I naturally like finding out about people, so we’ll end up talking about our terrible childhoods or whatnot, maybe politely or maybe not, because I don’t lean too much on convention, and if the other person pays this time, with the agreement that I’d pay the next time, then all the better. After dinner, if we had a great time, and a couple of beers, and maybe saw some live music, we might end up making out somewhere, who knows. Or having a snowball fight and wrestling in the snow, that might work too.

So that’s the thing. Dating isn’t a well-defined thing, or if it is, then it’s weird and uncomfortable and synthetic, so let’s avoid that, and let it proceed from our natural desire to interact with someone else and learn about someone else. That is my ideal anyway.

As for my advice to you: chances of a given dinner “working out” into a date and then a real relationship are pretty low, so just enjoy the dinner with the assumption that nothing of the sort will happen, but being genuinely engaged in the event itself. Find joy in the moment, and in the moment be the person you wish you always were, including being curious and kind to the person you’re sharing dinner with. At the very least you’ll have awesome dinners.

Warmly,

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

My girlfriend and I have been living together for almost a year. We are compatible sexually and very adventurous except in one area: anal sex. I have tried to get her to let me take her that way, but she refuses.

She does occasionally let me use a finger, always with plenty of lube. But if I try with the next size up, she denies me or gets mad.

I did it twice with a previous girlfriend and we both enjoyed it. I will admit that it takes the right mood and preparation.

Do you have any suggestions for how to overcome this hang-up?

A Now-frustrated Ass Lover

Dear ANAL,

Ah, the age-old conundrum of sexual incompatibility. A few things.

  1. Did you know that men have prostate glands but women don’t?  That makes anal sex directly sexually stimulative for men but not women. So that might come into play here.
  2. That’s not to say that women can’t enjoy anal sex. Some of them do, by all accounts, but it’s usually indirect, say from the added pressure to the entire system. You might want to ask your lover what exactly it might take to make it interesting for her.
  3. Also, that might not be enough. You might just be living with someone who isn’t interested in this, even if it get her off. Then you’ll have to decide what to do next.
  4. For example, maybe employing another sex toy or two to help you achieve a similar sensation? And maybe your girlfriend can agree to help you out with appropriate whispers and caresses?
  5. In other words, try to work with her to get to an approximation of the goal.
  6. Also, make sure you’re helping her achieve her sexual goals! Have you asked her recently what she’s been fantasizing about?
  7. If all else fails, you have to decide whether this is something you can live without. I’d suggest having a conversation with her about this directly, after trying the above, and see what kind of compromise you can come to. By all means don’t wait until you’ve found an outside ass-lover and then break the news to her.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia

——

Aunt Pythia,

I have a great deal of software development experience. I know Smalltalk, Java, and some Python, as well as Clojure. What do you think that I could do to get an opportunity to get into Analytics? I have only had one graduate level course in statistics, and that was a long time ago. I have done work with statistics since, but perhaps not heavy-duty enough to impress anyone. I keep applying for Java jobs, but I have not done Java programming since October 2007, so no one will look at me. I have an MS with a Computer Science major, with five doctoral-level courses in Computer Science.

Missing in Action

Dear MiA,

You need to bulk up your machine learning chops, unless you forgot to mention them. One graduate course in statistics is sufficient if you still remember it, but you actually need to be able to build predictive models nowadays with large datasets, and usually that means knowing how to implement all sorts of algorithms, as well as knowing when a given algorithm is called for.

If I were you I’d try to get my hands on syllabi of the various “data science bootcamps” that are proliferating, and see what skills are listed there that you don’t have. Also, obviously, be sure you know how to use Tableau and SQL.

Plus, and this is me talking, not your future employer, please consider the ethics of building and deploying algorithms. Take a look at this book I wrote a couple of years ago, and keep an eye out for this book I’m writing now for discussions of ethics. It’s coming out in about a year.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia

——

People, people! Aunt Pythia loves you so much. And she knows that you love her. She feels the love. She really really does.

Well, here’s your chance to spread your Aunt Pythia love to the world! Please ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia is in a rush this morning, people! She is going to see Jurassic Wold, in Imax 3D no less, and she needs to finish this here advice column quickly in order to make time for the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle (har har). So here goes.

This is a D-rex. It's a genetically modified T-rex, because those guys are wimpy.

This is a D Rex. It’s a genetically modified T Rex, because those guys are wimpy.

So read, enjoy, comments, and before you leave,

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

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve noticed a bunch of Masters’ in Data Science programs have been launched at various reputable universities lately. Can you vouch for the usefulness/value of any of them? Or would you say they are largely the product of big-name schools wanting to make a few bucks off the “Big Data” hype train?

Don’t Wanna Get Scammed!

Dear DWGS,

Yeah, my guess is both. I mean, I think most of them would teach you something, but I’m pretty sure these programs are also cash cows. As to their usefulness, one thing I’ve noticed is how few of the programs want to hire someone who has actually worked as a data scientist in a company. That doesn’t mean there is not internal person, in the academic institution, who knows a given skill, but it probably means that there’s not much direct advice for people going into this field.

To be any more specific, you’d have to name a program for me to look into.

Aunt Pythia

——

Hmm. Gotta think of a sex question for Aunt Pythia.

I’m a guy and I feel really guilty that I have sexual thoughts in a professional setting (although I do keep them to myself). For example, when women give math talks, I notice I am analyzing their sexiness – are they thin or at least quasi-thin, how ideal their boobs and curves look, how revealing and/or form-fitting their coverings, how well is their boob support functioning, and speaking of curves and forms, I imagine relating my pole to their their holes, after removing our pairs of pants and busting out my canonical divisor (ya know, the thing that kind of rhymes with genus) I’m at the cusp of an, um, singularity. More thoughts follow: Are they on their period, are their periods irregular? I compare their height in their heels, the depth of their voice, and the dimensions of their bust. When the latter two match up, i’ve found it possible to reverse a variety of positions, even if things aren’t completely smooth. My thoughts are quite wild and perverse and I feel somewhat ashamed for thinking these thoughts. Are these concerns rational, irrational? Do you think respectable, upstanding “nice-to-women” male members of the math profession have these thoughts, or is it just dirty minded guys like myself? Do you think lesbians have these thoughts?

Umm, this started out as a totally real question, but then my love of math super-seeded my love for women’s bodies. I think the same thing happens in the talk … eventually I’m able to pay attention to the math.

Do women check out guys while they are giving math talks? What might their thoughts be like?

Perverse Chief

Dear PC,

I think mostly everyone, or at least every adult, has thoughts along these lines. The question is, how long does it take for someone to “eventually” pay attention to the math? I think that’s critical, and it might depend on how much interaction they have with the opposite sex in their regular life, or how well they’ve been sleeping, or whether they’ve gotten exercise lately, or any number of things.

Obviously it’s better for both audience members and the speaker at a math talk if the math is the center of attention, but there’s no way to remove our humanness entirely; at the end of the day it’s a person, in front of other people, explaining some beautiful thing, and there’s bound to be human interactions.

And that’s not a bad thing. I remember concocting a crush on the speaker, male of female, of most talks I went to in order to enjoy their talk more. It worked!

So, if there’s advice to give, I’d say stop feeling guilty about checking out women, do keep your deeper desires to yourself, and enjoy the math. And if possible, try to crush out on the men too.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I love your answer to Porn Not Scorn. Have you seen Erika Lust’s TED talk? Enjoyed any of her films?

Intersecting Feminism and porn To overcome objectification

Dear IFapToo,

Wow, no I hadn’t heard of her, but I love her talk! I’ll check her out. I hope others do too.

Aunt Pythia

——

Hi Aunt Pythia,

I wrote to you about a year ago when I realized that I wanted to leave my PhD program for a data science job (‘Slightly Hyperventilating’). You gave encouraging advice–thanks! I ended up taking a job a little too prematurely into my search, but it’s allowed me to improve my programming skills and rub shoulders with internet user behavior datasets which is awesome. But now I’m on the job market again and excited to find a new team!

Here’s my question: at my current company, there’s a ton of tension between the engineers and the analytics people. It’s really weird and gross and counter-productive and stops me from learning from them which is what I want to do. How common is it that engineering teams look down their noses at stats-leaning, data analyzing folks? And what questions do I ask in the interview to find this out? What other indicators should I look for?

Seeking Nice Engineers

Dear SNE,

Oh my god, you were on the luxury winnebago edition of Aunt Pythia. I remember it well. Sigh.

So, great! You did everything right. The thing about data science jobs is that they don’t last forever. People are expected to jump ship once they get the basic idea of stuff and the learning curve decelerates, or when the politics of the office get annoying. In your case the latter has occurred, so go for it.

And no, I don’t have experience with nasty programmers. Most of the people I’ve worked with have been incredibly sweet. I mean, there’s some macho brogrammer posturing every now and then, but I have never seen that dominating. Just find a new job, and keep in touch!

Love,

Aunt Pythia

——

People, people! Aunt Pythia loves you so much. And she knows that you love her. She feels the love. She really really does.

Well, here’s your chance to spread your Aunt Pythia love to the world! Please ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia is very sorry to be late, and especially since last week she was away on vacation (in the woods! no wifi! many bugs!).

She knows her readers misses her tremendously, and the feeling is mutual. In order to make up for her tardiness, Aunt Pythia has made everyone banana chocolate chip pancakes:

4c86052d

Got a fork and a knife? And milk and coffee and syrup and strawberries too? Good, let’s eat up. And, before you leave,

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

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

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I like that Malties cereal in the mornings: I’m sure you have them over there too – little rectangular lattices of about 18x21mm side length. For convenient pouring in my bleary morning state, as I open a fresh box, I transfer the as much of the contents as possible to a large plastic dispenser, from which I pour a serving each morning. The container I use has a rectangular base of about 80x205mm.

What troubles me is this: when I pour the cereal in, it of course tumbles randomly into the container. A boxful never quite fits. Would it make much difference if the lattices were neatly stacked in nice horizontal strata?

If I wasn’t so hung up about this from the moment I wake each day, I’m sure I’d be more receptive to my partner’s early morning advances, too!

Yours in desperation,
Get A Bigger Server, OR Get All Malties Stacked

Dear GABS OR GAMS,

I keep thinking your sign-off means something, but I can’t figure out what.

Also, I keep thinking there’s some deeper meaning to your question, but I can’t figure that out either. I mean, if you wanted me to estimate how much space you’d save by stacking your cereal carefully in a storage box, at the very least you’d have to tell me how tall each little Maltie is and how tall your storage container is. I suppose I could try to eyeball a solution to the problem using those measurements as variables, but then you’d be overestimating how much work I’m willing to do here.

In fact, without knowing the height of a Maltie, I wouldn’t even know how to neurotically arrange them to save space; lying them in rows, flat on the bottom, would leave space along the edges, and I don’t know how many more you can fit by arranging them on their side without knowing more.

Anyhoo, I think it’s sufficient to say that yes, you can definitely save space by doing this. And at this point, I think you own me a picture of your perfectly arranged storage box. After that, by all means, be receptive to your partner’s advances.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a PhD student in physics, where I am pretty much the only person who wears a dress – between men and a few women that there is at the department. I am telling this to emphasize that I like being girly. But, I realized last weekend that I am not girly enough. I had a get-together with my long-time girlfriends (we all live in different continents now), and was judged on pretty much every piece of my appearance from not-plucking-my-facial-hair-good-enough to why-am-I-not-doing-something-about-my-misshapen-teeth.

Another thing was when we were discussing birth control: they are dead against pills, or IUD, because these things directly control your hormones which then controls your periods and a woman having her period is the most natural thing on Earth. And what if you can’t have children because of that, how would I forgive myself knowing that I could’ve just used condoms and prevented that?

I find these people very beautiful, fun, and actually strong women because they can pose for a picture and not worry about opening their mouths too much not to show their teeth.

Anyhoo, my question is: Knowing that I shouldn’t conform deep inside, how do I actually feel neutral about having all these not-so-beautiful stuff about my body? Or is it just easier to wax every week?

Have An Influence pRoblem

Dear HAIR,

This is a seriously great question. Plus, nice sign-off. I even know what it means.

Here’s the thing about rules. Rules often exist for a purpose. But I like to challenge rules, and to do so I try to backtrack to their original purpose, and then decide whether:

  1. the rule was a good one given the purpose, and
  2. whether the purpose matters to me at all, and
  3. whether it matters more to me than it bothers me to follow the rules.

Let’s use this approach for the stuff you’re dealing with pertaining to the rules around personal grooming and general “girliness” or “womanliness.”

Hair

Women are supposed to keep their hair off of everything except their head. That is to say, they get pushback for having hairy armpits, hairy legs, and even hairy private parts. Conversely, they get push-back if they shave their heads. Those are the rules. Oh, and they’re only supposed to have hair on the part of their heads away from the face. Hair on the face is to be shaved or plucked.

What’s the purpose behind this? It’s a tricky one, but I think it basically boils down to looking young. Men, we are told, are attracted to young women, so women have pressure to appear young. Young people’s hair is very fine, and almost invisible, so to appear super young we should appear hairless.

What’s strange about this purpose is that men are actually attracted to women, not girls, so they should be comfortable with at least a certain amount of hair, unless they’ve been talked out of it somehow. It’s clearly at least somewhat a cultural fad, perhaps even created by shaving and grooming companies that want to make more money off of selling products to women.

So, going back to my approach, I feel like the rule that we have to remain hairless-looking (except for some parts of our head) is kind of random and maybe even commercial. It’s a bad rule. Also, the purpose doesn’t matter much to me, because although I like men being attracted to me well enough, I’m okay with self-selected “I like hair” men.

I do have an exception, however, for facial hair, perhaps because it is so closely associated with oldness and therefore unsexiness. To be honest, I don’t feel completely happy with my own chin-hair issues, and I wish I could transcend them. I strive to be that old lady with a beard, wearing purple hats and poking young people on the subway with my umbrella when they misbehave.

Teeth

Good teeth have historically been a very important signal of nutrition. Read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and you’ll see how incredibly obvious terrible nutrition was in Europe in the mid-1700’s. Very poor women had no teeth, and the saying “a tooth for every child” was very real.

Nowadays, not so much, but we still rate each other’s health and wealth on how many and how straight our teeth are. Oh, and how white they are, which is again a marketing miracle. So the purpose behind giving you shit about your teeth is that people will judge your health and your wealth badly if you don’t.

Is this a good rule? Should you care? I think it depends on how crooked your teeth really are, and how much it matters to the people you’re trying to impress. If you’re an actress, it matters a lot. But if, in your profession, you are somewhere in the average range, give it no further thought. And I’d wager that, in physics, standards are pretty low.

Hormones

They want you to not take hormones because “having your period is natural” and “you might not be able to conceive afterwards. To be honest neither of those reasons sound convincing, first because first I have never heard of the pill making it harder to conceive, except maybe the copper IUD but it doesn’t sound like you mean that one, and second because historically women have had far fewer periods due to a combination of more pregnancies, longer breastfeeding, and poorer nutrition.

However, I personally have reasons I’d never take hormones, so I will mention them here. I have experience both with pills, which I’ve been on three times in my life, and the Mirena IUD, which I also used for 2 years. In all of these hormonal experiments, I have been more easily depressed, less ambitious, and generally uninterested in everything. Whenever I get off the hormones, I get incredibly energized, horny, and ambitious. I know things affect women differently, so I won’t speak for everyone, but my experiences have convinced me never to do it again.

And of course, the convenience of not having to worry about getting pregnant is pretty great, so you have to weigh things against each other. There is no perfect solution to anything.

Friends

One last thing, although you didn’t ask. What’s the purpose of a bunch of women getting together and criticizing each other? Not to say they didn’t also support you, I’m sure they did.

But it’s a general “rule” that women do this, so their must be an associated purpose. I think it has something to do with reinforcing the sense that they aren’t wasting their time plucking their facial hair, getting their teeth straightened, and posing for pictures whilst having their natural periods. And that reinforced sense also feeds into why they give off a sense of being “strong” women.

The truth is, though, that it is kind of a waste of time, often, but it’s a difficult subject to breach in certain company. In any case I wanted to let you know that you’re probably doing it right – you’re enjoying your girliness in your own way and at your own level, but not at the level that your friends expect. In my book, that means you’re enjoying it but not wasting time on it, so well done!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. Update: just saw this related Times Opinion piece.

——

Dear Auntie P,

So I’ve recently started sleeping and developing emotional bonds with someone. All great, everything clicking the way it should, so much so that we both feel half our age, which would put us back in the heady days of high school – read “we were unprepared for what we both knew was going to happen and did the rumpus unprotected.” To be clear, pregnancy protection is in place but barriers were not.

My question isn’t “how do you go to the other person and say that we’re going to go back to using condoms”, because the answer is to look the other person in the eye and say “I think we need to go back to using condoms”. No, the question is, when my partner probes my thinking on this matter, how do I navigate the undercurrent of not being sure that my partner isn’t possibly a carrier of an STI, and/or saying that they should not feel secure that I amn’t? Going barrier-less functions in the modern world, I’d say, as a fairly high-trust-threshold signal, but is there a better way to answer the question “why should we use condoms” than “because I don’t fully trust you yet, or because you shouldn’t fully trust me yet, or some nonlinear combination of these”?

Complicating factor: hubby has in the past experimented with non-monogamy, though they found it not to their liking; and I’d like at least the option of non-monogamy to be open to both of us going forward. These are matters we’re working out, but aren’t urgently crying for final resolution. Let’s just say that at the moment, we’re occupying each other’s time quite capably.

Trusty Lusty

Dear Trusty,

I’ve read this letter a bunch of times, and I’m still a bit confused.

Let me start with what I think – think – is happening.

  1. You are married.
  2. You are also having an affair.
  3. You are sexually active with both your husband and your lover.
  4. You recently didn’t use a condom with your lover.
  5. You are wondering how to “go back to using condoms” without having an awkward conversation about trust.

If the above is all correct, you have put yourself and your husband at risk of STD’s. I’m not sure your sign-off is entirely warranted.

As for advice, yes I have some: an awkward conversation, pronto. Tell your lover that you would love to go with him to a testing facility to make sure you haven’t exchanged any STD’s. Feel free to mention that an STD could have come from you, and that he’s not the only suspect. If you feel like it would be an easier conversation, suggest that your husband has experimented with non-monogamy in the past and so there’s yet a fourth person, who neither of you know, in the mix.

But in any case, even if you never convince your lover to get tested, go get tested yourself, and be sure to use condoms from now on. Also, get tested again in 6 months.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear AP,

What do you think about hacking ethics? In particular, I’m thinking of this article, which details how some students sneaked a peak at their admission results by hacking a website.

I’m tempted to side with the students against the B-schools because, y’know, business schools. But, then I realize that these applicants, if successful, will become business school students. So, have to be against them, too.

At the root of it, though, hacking things is such a great part of nerdy engineering culture and the best way to learn how things really work (maybe?). Feels like hacks should be celebrated when they aren’t being used for nefarious purposes. And what harm comes to the business schools if applicants know the decisions early? Weigh that against the benefit to the applicants of being able to plan their lives, like buying a Duke sweatshirt and renting an apartment in Durham (maybe?).

Crotchety in Seattle

Dear Crotchety,

I am OK with them getting kicked out of B-School because this wasn’t really hacking, this was cheating. They didn’t even figure it out, for god’s sake, they just followed instructions! That’s not hacking. Plus it’s also a sign of dumbness that they thought they could get away with it.

I’m with you that hacking is a fun side of nerdy engineering culture, but I much prefer hacks that have mischievous or even higher goals attached to them for me to defend the hackers. Aaron Schwartz I’ll defend, a disappointed Sloan School student I won’t.

Auntie P

——

People, people! Aunt Pythia loves you so much. And she knows that you love her. She feels the love. She really really does.

Well, here’s your chance to spread your Aunt Pythia love to the world! Please ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Dearest Aunt Pythia readers! Do you know what makes Aunt Pythia super happy, blissful beyond belief? Aunt Pythia will tell you the answer to that right now: sweet letters from amazing nerd girls.

As you may or may not know, Aunt Pythia lives with and cares for a veritable brood of nerd boys – three of them, and four if you count her husband – but longs for a maternal role with nerd girls, her absolute favorite people in the world. But it just didn’t work out that way, no it didn’t. And she tried, oh yes.

So, given the reality of the situation, Aunt Pythia did her very best to make do. And make do she has done! In fact, the good news is that she has officially succeeded, as of yesterday, when she received this letter (which the writer has kindly agreed to allow me to publish):

Hi Mathbabe,

I just wanted to send you a fangirly email saying THANK YOU for publishing your blog. I’m going back to university for computer science after deciding years ago in high school that I just “wasn’t a math person,” and it’s been so reassuring and inspiring and FUN to read your blog and realize that …

a) I’m not the only person who feels inadequate sometimes!

b) It’s okay to study math even if you’re a little slow so long as you still like doing math!

c) It’s possible to study topics like math and computer science with a social justice angle and engagement with the world around me! (Sometimes it all seems so abstract and money-grubbing, you know?)

Anyway you rock. Whenever I feel down in my first-year calculus class, I check out your blog and feel good about my life again. You are a great role model.

Seriously, people, this is the stuff. It’s awesome.

Hey, and here’s the thing, Mathbabe a.k.a. Aunt Pythia has just started. She’s raring to go, in fact. So please, after enjoying today’s column:

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

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

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

Do you have a position on trigger warnings in higher education?

The issue seems to have provoked a lot of controversy lately, and the controversy seems to have fallen along partisan lines. The argument on the left is that trigger warnings are a way to support the diversity of identities and experiences in the classroom and they are just as innocuous as movie ratings or “slippery when wet” signs. The argument on the right is that trigger warnings infantilize students and potentially have a chilling effect on open discussion in the classroom.

My opinion is that it is polite to warn someone before showing them disturbing images in any context, including and especially the classroom, but I am rather nervous about formal university policies which require trigger warnings or recommend the removal of triggering material. What do you think?

To Resist Image Gore? or Guarantee Everything Revealed?

Dear TRIGGER,

I remember being in high school. I think it was my junior year, and in social studies we were reading the Greek myths. It seemed like every other story was about an earth woman who was super attractive, was raped by a god, and then punished for her seductive powers by the god’s jealous wife. I kept on getting outraged and stuck on this idea that women could be punished for being attractive and even for being raped.

Here’s the thing, though. I had a good teacher that year, who allowed me to declare my dismay at the story. We had a discussion in class about how morals change with culture. We talked about blaming victims and the inequity of those stories, from our perspectives. We even talked about the nature of human existence and desires, and of course the nature of godliness, and how that might have or might not have changed since the Greeks. Or at least that’s how I remember it. In other words, what started out as shocking became a learning experience.

I feel like my kids, when they become juniors in high school, might not get shown this stuff at all, depending on who the teacher is and what the climate is. That would be a shame. I think I benefitted a lot from that discussion, especially since I can still remember it, and especially because it was the first time I can remember examining brutality through the lens of intellectual inquiry. So I’m a firm “no” on removing material that would have a theoretical trigger warning on it, at least by the time they’re 15.

As for actual trigger warnings, I’m ambivalent. On the one hand I like the idea of girding people for oncoming tough moments, especially if signals people to pay more attention. On the other hand, I feel like sometimes they wouldn’t help, because the outrage is there whether or not you’ve mentally prepared, and trigger warnings might serve as a way for people to opt out of being engaged.

But my main problem with trigger warnings would be if they were seen as a replacement for the discussion of what’s so fucked up about punishing rape victims, or whatever it is. The point is that, as learners, we each must consume and metabolize the things we read, and a well-led discussion is when that all happens. It’s critical we don’t replace that with a tepid catch-all phrase that renders our rage unarticulated.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a heterosexual male, and I’m facing a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, I would like to consider myself a feminist, or at least sympathetic to feminism (perhaps one must engage in public activism to earn the title “feminist”). On the other hand (sometimes literally), I like porn.

Of course these two sensibilities are in tension because the pornography market is overall one of the most hyper-masculine, patriarchal, and misogynistic industries on the planet. And the problem is not limited to the product – porn actresses are systematically mistreated and underpaid, and having appeared in porn is a scarlet letter which can follow you around for the rest of your life.

One step which I took a long time ago was to never pay for porn or click on advertisements so that I could claim to have never directly supported the industry. It turns out that limiting yourself to only free porn is not much of a limitation at all, but I wonder if this is really as much of a stand as I make it out to be. Also, it doesn’t address the rather idiotic standards of content that seem to be rather universal in the industry. Sometimes on a Friday night all I want is to get drunk and relive the amazing sex I had with my ex-girlfriend, but this sex did not involve her wearing boots the whole time or me ejaculating on her face at the end.

This is turning into a bit of a rant, so let me cut to my actual question. Is there such a thing as ethical porn, and if so where does one find it? More generally, is it possible to be a consumer of porn without participating in offensive industry practices?

People Of Responsible Nudity, Never Overly Tormented Sexually; Can One Remedy Needs?

Dear PORN NOT SCORN,

So, you’re not alone. Lots of people look at porn, and many of them want to feel like good people too. So what steps can you take? I’m afraid I have to start out by saying that, by refusing to pay, you might have done the opposite of what you should have been doing.

For example, take a look at the advice described here for ethical porn consumption:

  1. Stick with porn from big brands, who have higher standards for their actors. You will have to pay for this.
  2. Stick with performers you know and who control their careers and have their own websites.
  3. In fact, pay for their content directly from their websites, and don’t watch pirated versions on YouPorn.
  4. Finally, if you want alternatives, find home-made sexy time videos and pay for them. This sounds harder to validate.

Another couple of ideas: watch porn cartoons, where there’s no real people, or watch content from kink.com, where they interview the actors and you can feel somewhat relieved (but perhaps not entirely) that the stuff they just did was not coercive.

Here’s Aunt Pythia’s feelings about porn, that for the most part turns her off, and this is even ignoring the coercive and seedy sides of it, in a way. Very very very little of it concerns the woman’s pleasure. In fact there’s quite a bit of it, in her statistical sampling, that concerns blowjobs, or anal sex, or what have you, that is almost entirely not directly stimulative for the female partner (Deep Throat’s premise notwithstanding). On top of that, lots of it has embarrassingly unconvincing grunts and moans coming from the woman. Horrible.

It’s almost like the viewer is being trained to ignore what woman actually want in bed. For that reason alone she thinks it’s bad news for men, especially young men who don’t know what to expect with a real live woman.

I feel like there is a niche out there for this stuff, and maybe that’s what the “home-made videos” are all about, where the people involved actually know and enjoy each other’s naked body, and they aren’t ashamed, and both of them have a great time. I’m pretty sure it will cost money though, and that’s fine.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

What skills might I need to be a credible candidate for a big data job? I just applied for one, although I seem to be missing a lot of what they asked. I program in Python, Java, Smalltalk, and Clojure. I could probably do Jython, as well, as there is a market for it, seemingly. There are groups in the Dallas area that are using NoSql databases, MySQL, Hadoop, Ruby on Rails, and Python. I found this opportunity by searching with Python. I think that they want Python and Django experience, while I only have Python right now.

Lost in Space

Dear LiS,

I’m not sure what kind of “big data job” you’re referring to. As an engineer? As a data scientist?

The thing is, you’ve listed programming languages, but I think the main thing people are looking for is problem solving experience and ability. Languages are the medium through which you formalize your solutions to problems, but they are only that; the main obstacle to most data questions is thoughtful approaches. And the way you develop them is by having lots of experience in knowing how to define and refine questions using data, how to measure and interpret signals, which algorithms do what, and so on. What language you’re using isn’t irrelevant, but it’s not the first thing I’d be talking about.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I was talking to a fellow academic about the under-representation of women in some areas of academia. He started with the typical “there is no sexism in academia, there might have been, but all those professors are about to retire.” I have arguments for this, like all the studies showing that women are judged harder than men with the exact same CV. But before I could respond, he continued with “and besides, we all know that women like babies and fluffy things more than hard math. By the way, do you want to go on a date with me?”.

Is there any possible response other than punching him in the face?

Female Mathematician

Dear FM,

Violence doesn’t solve anything! Or rather, why do with violence what can be accomplished much more easily with words?

I would suggest the following words in this scenario:

Hahahahahahaha! Oh my god you really got me there! For a moment you had me convinced that you really were the most horrifying asshole ever, and then to top it off, asking me out like that! What a HOOT!

Seriously, do you do stand-up? Is this your persona? It’s dead on.

Oh wait, were you kidding? You weren’t? You actually think that stuff? And you think that, in any universe, that would be attractive to women? How bizarre. I’m afraid I have to leave, I’m late for a meeting of women in math, where we discuss the cool math we’re doing, and afterwards we have pizza and gossip about conversations like this one.

Seriously, it takes some courage, but be direct. Tell the guy – through humor, if it helps – that this attitude is a direct obstacle for him getting what he wants. Make him reevaluate what he’s trying to achieve. If you punch him, it becomes all about you, thus defeating the purpose.

And good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

People, people! Aunt Pythia loves you so much. And she knows that you love her. She feels the love. She really really does.

Well, here’s your chance to spread your Aunt Pythia love to the world! Please ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia
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