Archive for the ‘Aunt Pythia’ Category

Aunt Pythia’s advice: delicious crepes edition

Aunt Pythia is going to brag about something this morning.

Namely, how delicious her crepes are. And here’s the thing, she’s generous and like to share. If you were willing to get to her house at 8:06am on a weekend morning, she’d also make you some crepes with fresh fruit. You could sit right there, between two of her darling children covered in nutella. Here’s an idea of what you’d be getting:

We don't usually fold our crepes like that, but you get the idea.

We don’t usually fold our crepes like that, but you get the idea.

But you aren’t here at 8:06am, are you? Too lazy? That’s what I thought. You don’t get any crepes.

But the good thing about the interwebs is that you don’t have to be awake at any particular time to enjoy Aunt Pythia’s advice whenever you so please. Therefore, feast your eyes on the column and then:

please think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

I am almost out of questions!!!

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

This is not an Aunt Pythia question, I just want to bring to your attention the following post on math overflow entitled How Does One Justify Funding for Mathematics Research.

Also, I guess you don’t read the Daily News – two Aunt Pythia questions I asked were front page on it, but you hadn’t heard about either (Belle Knox and the philosophy professor at Miami). I just read it to mostly find out about the (violent) crime going on in NYC. It makes me depressed and want to leave this town. It isn’t worth it living here: it is way too expensive to live here, too crowded and dirty, and too cold. Do you ever wish you were back in Massachusetts or Berkeley?


Dear NYDN,

I decided that, by the end of that non-question, it was a question worth answering. And thanks for the link, I’ll take a look!

As far as living in New York City, it’s perfect for me for a bunch of reasons which might not resonate with you. For example, I’ve been hugely fortunate to be living in a great and subsidized Columbia apartment since moving here, so that makes it alot easier.

Second, I like the weather to actually change, maybe because I grew up in Boston. It bothered me in Berkeley not to have an autumn. I love autumn. Plus the people in Berkeley get too soft and can’t handle cold weather. So yes, I’m also kind of a macho weather person, although the weather lately has been too temperate to be macho about.

Next, I really really hate regular commuting, with traffic jams and such, and New York is a place where I can walk, bike, or subway anywhere. That’s so cool! I don’t own a car and I never want to again.

Also, and here’s the thing, I like things crowded and dirty. I like people of all ages and races and ethnicities sweating on each other in the subway. So many people! So many languages! It’s incredibly cool, and I never get enough of it. That’s why I like it when the subway stops for an hour in the tunnel and we all end up missing whatever appointments we had and we talk to each and behave like human beings. That’s New York!

Sometimes I even like it when people are rude to each other (as long as nobody is picking on anyone, which bothers me) because it gets out my urban aggression by proxy: just seeing other people be pushy and pointy helps me find my zen. I don’t know how people in suburbia deal with hostility! Maybe through those commuter traffic jams? Too passive aggressive to me, I want it to be face-to-face.

Finally, as for violent crime, it’s inevitable we have some, but overall it’s an incredibly peaceful city. I’ve never been threatened here. By contrast I was definitely threatened in Berkeley a few times, although the early 90’s was a different time. I feel perfectly fine sending my kids outside to walk around by themselves, for example.

Thanks for asking!

Aunt Pythia


Hi Aunt Pythia,

This is not a question. I just wanted to share this song I heard on the radio this morning with you:

It is called Dangerous from Big Data :)


Big Data Strange Music

Dear BDSM,

Three things.

  1. That video is bizarre and awesome, and I’m not surprised you thought I’d love it, especially considering my above confession that I like violence, although it kind of went too far, but on the other hand they kept it silly, which made it tolerable.
  2. I am through with people sending me non-questions. From now on, everything’s a question. I don’t have enough questions left to remove the ones called non-questions.
  3. Nice sign-off!


Auntie P


Aunt Pythia,

Why should the world care about mathematicians? Note that I didn’t say mathematics.

Alter Egoist

Dear AE,

Great question. There does seem to be an obsession with The Mind Of The Mathematician. Maybe because it represents an extreme of sorts? And because people respect mathematics as an achievement of human culture? But that doesn’t explain all the profiles and such. Not sure. I’ll think about that one. Happy to take reader suggestions on this one!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a tenured professor in a good department with many coauthors both senior and junior to me. Like everyone, I have had some failed collaborations, usually because the project didn’t progress and we mutually decided to abandon it. But most of my collaborators have collaborated with me repeatedly on a number of papers.

However there is one strange type of failed collaboration that has happened twice to me in recent years which I cannot comprehend. Perhaps you and your readers might have some insight as to what is going on.

In both collaborations, I proposed the topic and we had good discussions and some exchange of tex files with proofs. Then one day, complete and total email silence. Both times the silence was in response to a request that might take a little while to carry out and so could easily lead to temporary email silence. It could take time to devise a proof of some lemma or decide that it cannot be proven.

Eventually I send a second email mentioning the same question and asking if there is a concern that we need to discuss. I send a third email completely off topic about something else. Usually, when a coauthor is silent for awhile, switching the topic restarts the email exchanges. When this didn’t work I sent an email suggesting we meet in person at an upcoming conference or at one of our departments (funded by me). Finally, after a few months, I emailed the secretary in their respective departments and asked them to print out a note that they should email me and leave it in their mailbox. Still nothing and so I give up some 4 months later.

Well the first collaborator to leave me in total email silence did this about four years ago. I was told by other people he has done this to them as well. The project was very important to me but I have left it aside unsure how to proceed. Do I finish it alone and just put his name on it and send it to him when he’s done? I wasn’t sure. He is important and somewhat powerful. So I just left the project aside.

The second collaborator to leave me in total silence has also left a third junior collaborator in total silence. The junior collaborator and I worked on a different project together while we repeatedly tried to contact him. We finished our other project and contacted the silent partner about returning to the joint project but there is still silence. The junior partner and I are now returning to the original project but solving it in a way complete disjoint from the approach we had been working on with the silent partner. I do not want any suggestion that we stole work from the silent partner but we cannot delay the project any longer. Not when a junior colleague’s career is on the line.

What in the world is going on with these collaborators? What should I do about the first collaborator? At this point they have been silent so long, I do not wish to collaborate with them again even if they suggest returning to the project. I’ve had multiple collaborators in the past who gave reasonable excuses and asked we that postpone working on a project a few months or indefinitely while they handled a job hunt or a divorce or a new baby. In that case, I can wait. But this absolute silence with no reason at all seems to indicate some sort of mental block.


Angrily Bitter And
Notoriously Dangerously Ornery
Non-Existent Demon


Holy shit that’s the mother of all sign-offs.

Plus it’s kind of an awesome question as well. And super long! That makes up for rather short, non-questiony questions that I was making do with until yours.

OK so I think people are just sometimes lame. They drop off the face of the earth. Maybe they just get cold feet, maybe they have consuming mid-life crises, maybe their spam filters go crazy. Chances are, though, they just get overwhelmed with other projects and don’t quite want to shit and don’t quite want to get off the pot either. It’s your job to make them decide which one to do.

Just in case it’s the spam filter problem, do try calling. Also, try talking to a mutual friend? Poke them that way?

Once you’ve tried all those things, I would be very pragmatic about it. Email them and say something along the lines of, “you have two weeks to respond to this and then we are submitting our manuscript without your name on it since you have not been responsive.”

If you want to be double sure of them having a fair chance to get involved, also write them a letter with that message and send it to their department. Don’t hold it against them, they might be dealing with a divorce or a sick kid, you just don’t know, and it’s best to withhold resentment if possible. But no reason to hold back your publications either.

Good luck, ABANDONED!

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Hello and good morning! Aunt Pythia is feeling well-slept (thankfully!) and happy to be here.

Another Saturday morning means – yes – another ride on the Aunt Pythia advice bus, which is leisurely rolling out of the parking lot with a full pot of fresh brewed coffee ready. Can you smell it, people?!!

Plus, there’s a full kitchen on board (who knew?!) and Aunt Pythia has a poffertje pan in one hand and buckwheat flour in the other, and while we’re sipping our coffees we can also look forward to some sweet buttery deliciousness, kinda like this:

Mine will be a bit larger, the pan I found was actually for Japanese Yakoyaki.

Mine will be a bit larger, the pan I found was actually for Japanese Takoyaki.

Are your mouths watering? I bet they are. Please enjoy the column and your version of Dutch poffertjes, and then:

please think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

I am almost out of questions!!!

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 recently came across a math paper that is blatantly plagiarized; it also appears to be published twice. The paper(s) in question are:

[reference 1]

see also

[reference 2]

The latter is not available online, so I am only guessing that it is the same, but there is strong circumstantial evidence, e.g. same title, same bibliography, comparable length. Compare these to

[reference 3]

starting in section 4.

My question is: what action, if any, is it appropriate for me to take about this? Options might include writing to mathscinet, to the editors of the journals that published the plagiarized papers, or to the employers of the plagiarizer works. One might also consider attempts at public shaming, e.g. by posting my accusations, identifying the author, on your blog? (or rather, by trying to bait you into posting….). Or doing nothing, since arguably it’s not my business anyway.

I do not know the author, do not know anything about him other than these papers, do not work in the same field, expect never to meet him.

Perplexed Reader

Dear Perplexed Reader,

Hmm. This isn’t my field – and wasn’t even when I was publishing papers in academic math – but I think you might be on to something.

Since I have access to the Columbia library system, I was able to look at the first of those two and the other guy’s papers, and I can see that there is a striking similarity in the equations and the stated result. But someone in the field would be a better judge of how similar it is and how likely it could be a mistake. Maybe you are in a close enough field and have already come to that conclusion. It seems you have.

It also seems weird that they guy has published the same paper in two journals, but given that he also has the same exact name on both, it doesn’t seem to be a way to game his resume, right? Because wouldn’t it be weird to have the same name on two papers? With the same abstracts?

So, it’s definitely weird. And that guy is reachable, I found him on the web with an attached email. However, the second guy has passed away.

To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what I’d do if I were you. It’s definitely none of your business in some way, but then again you are likely a mathematician and want the field of mathematics to be kept honest.

Here’s an idea: write to the editor of the journals in question and make them aware of the problem. I honestly don’t think you bother writing to the plagiarizer at all.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,
I just finished my first year of college, and now that I’m back home for the summer, I’ve learned about all the various cool (read: the kinds that I want) internships my high school peers have gotten. Some of the particularly prestigious ones went to classmates whom I didn’t like, and it’s hard for me to not compare myself to them. They were the ones who were pretty, well-rounded and popular, the ones everybody worshipped because they made it to the Ivy Leagues and similar institutions.

This feeling of sadness + inadequacy has hit me quite often in the past, but I’ve been able to quell it by turning to my math textbooks, my sources of comfort. But lately, that technique doesn’t work. I can’t help but feel that my love for math, especially given my mediocrity at it, is just a ruse to cover up my inability to be pretty, well-rounded, and popular–in other words, “successful” like my classmates. Deep down, I believe that I could be a math babe, but I have a hard time embracing it as I am aware that I might one day go down the stereotypical awkward math nerd path–and just fall by the wayside in the eyes of my peers.

What should I do?

Sad Golden Bear

Dear SGB,

Ready for some cold comfort? I got plenty.

First, those internships are probably horrible. They’re probably just getting coffee from grumpy dilettantes. Even if that’s not true it will help to assume it.

Second, to the extent they are rubbing elbows with powerful people, the structure of their position dictates that they be worshipful and grateful to these powerful people. Fuck that, never be worshipful of anyone, especially just because they’re powerful or successful. Gross.

Third, there are plenty of amazing things you can do without a formal setup internship. Back in my day there was no such thing as an internship, so we figured out projects over the summers. I worked at Fair Foods in Dorchester, MA the summer after my first year of college, volunteering and loading trucks. My pay was my room and board, and it was awesome. Go find something meaningful to do with yourself, don’t depend on other people’s organizational skills, because they will only send you to artificially constructed or corporate environments.

Fourth, math skillz are sexier and more valuable than you now know. Plus they last longer than prettiness and popularity. Keep it up and you will eventually be one of the cool kids. Plus everyone always thinks their math abilities are subpar, it’s a good sign that yours are just fine.

Fifth and finally, and this is the coldest comfort of all, being on the outside helps you understand the construct of social stratification and the pain of being excluded. Remember this for later when you are one of the cool kids, so you will always have empathy for outsiders.

Good luck!

Auntie P


Dear Auntie P,

I’ve been following your columns about empathy and the math community. I also just read this and I’m afraid that my boyfriend just isn’t nice!

As you might expect, he’s also not so nice when I try to point out to him how it’s making me feel sometimes. It makes him feel misunderstood. He’s got lots of wonderful traits, and I love him and he loves me. What can we do?

In love with Mr. Unnice Guy

Dear In love,

I am actually in the midst of planning a “how to have a happy marriage” post, so this is pretty good timing. You haven’t given me much to go on, so I’ll just make a bunch of assumptions.

First, here’s the thing, you don’t need your boyfriend to be “nice”. You just need to trust him. He can be a grump and he can even kick cats when they walk in front of him, but if you trust him to love you and to be on your side and to be on your team, then that’s fine, although you might want to extend sympathy with the cats.

But wait, does your boyfriend spend a lot of time criticizing you? Is he truly unkind to you? Then leave him. He’s not on your team. No kidding. And you guys don’t even have kids, imagine what it would be like for you to see him treat your kids like that.

But if he is generally kind to you, and he seems somewhat detached from the world around him, we’re in a gray area. It will depend on how it affects your life. If he kicks your cat, that won’t do. Judgement call, although sometimes trainable – as in, you might be able to train him on some little things. And if you want to know more about the training, you’ll need to give me more precise scenarios.

Aunt Pythia


Auntie P,

Well, it happened yet again. Invited a guy I was crushing on to my party. Seemed to me that he has been flirting with me for a while. At party, he immediately falls for a friend instead. I am so sick of this shit. I am really pretty, smart, funny, etc. Are there somehow just amazing women who are totally unlovable, and what the fuck is wrong with me. I really fear this will end badly once my last shreds of hope and self worth have eroded.

Never The One

Dear Never,

You are totally lovable, don’t forget it. And yes, gorgeous and sexy and brilliant. Just FYI.

Plus, I have some great advice for you, my friend.

Namely, you need to recruit your girlfriends to the cause. What was this friend thinking, and did she know about your crush? I’m guessing you forgot to clue her in, or at least you forgot to emphasize the import.

Do you know what a wing woman is and how to create a wing woman event? Well, I’m glad you asked. I am seriously thinking of writing a book called “Wing Woman” once my other stuff is cleared, but for now I will distill my wisdom into two paragraphs.

Getting laid or finding a datable guy is a community affair. Gather a girls-only version of your party and talk about how you guys can help each other with your crushes. No fair for it to be only about you, you also have to problem solve for other people. Make plans, hold practices in bars or beer gardens or free outdoor concerts of wherever, and make sure there are at least three wingwoman per round, since you don’t want to strand your friends.

And most importantly, at all times maintain a rotation of crushes on a bunch of men, or else the ego crashing at low moments will overwhelm. The goal is to have a response more like, “oh well, his loss.”

Good luck, and keep me posted on your wingwoman work!

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s amazing advice

Well hello there, cutie, and welcome. Aunt Pythia loves you today, even more than usual!

For some reason she can’t pinpoint, but probably has to do with a general feeling of happiness and fulfillment, Aunt Pythia is even more excited than usual to be here and to toss off unreasonably smug and affectionate opinions and advice. Buckle up and get ready for the kisses and the muffins.

The kisses are harder to picture but they are even more delicious.

The kisses are harder to picture but they are even more delicious.

Everyone set? OK, fabulous, let’s get going. Oh and by the way, at the bottom of the column please please

think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

I am almost out of questions!!!

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,

How should one deal with sexism and harassment at conferences?

As a white heterosexual male mathematician, I don’t experience much bias against me in my professional life, but I’ve seen (and heard of) a lot of bad stuff happening against anyone not conforming to this norm, which I think is not only bad for the people who experience this, but also bad for mathematics as a whole, for various reasons.

At a recent specialized conference, one of participants (a grad student) was very obviously sexually interested in one of the other grad students (one of only 2 female participants, my field has some serious problems in this regard), who was clearly not interested (and married).

I didn’t know these persons before the conference, and beyond me saying to the the harassing person that she was married and that he shouldn’t annoy her (which didn’t have any impact of course), I didn’t do anything. I would have liked to somehow help the harassed party feel welcome, and communicate that besides that one jerk people were interested in her mathematical ideas, but I didn’t know how to communicate this to her without making it seem inappropriate. So instead, I kept silent, which feels bad. Is there anything I could do next time I was in this type of situation, besides trying not to be a jerk?

Dr. Nonheroic Observer

Dear Dr. NO,

I gotta say, I love your question, but it’s kind of spare on details. What did the guy do? How much did it annoy the married party? It really matters, and my advice to you depends on those facts.

When I think about it, though, I don’t see why the fact that she’s married matters. Speaking as a 17-year married person (as of today!), married people like to flirt sometimes, so it’s not as if it’s intrinsically harassing for someone to express interest in a married person, or for that matter a single person.

But as soon as someone responds with a “not interested” signal, it is of course the responsibility of the interested party to tone it down.

Let me go into three scenarios here, and tell you what I think your response should be in each.

First, the guy likes her. You said it was obvious he was interested and it was also obvious she wasn’t. Depending on how that played out, it could be totally fine and not at all your responsibility to do anything. So, if he was like, hey would you like to go on a walk? and then she said, no thanks I’m going to get some work done and that was that, then whatevs. Again, not holding anything against someone for interest per se.

Now on to the second scenario, which seems more likely, since you mentioned that he annoyed her in spite of your advice to him. So that means he followed her around a lot and generally speaking glommed on her, which probably means he obstructed her normal interaction with other mathematicians at the conference. This is a big problem, because conferences are when the “mathematical socializing” happens, which very often results in collaboration and papers. The fact that men glom onto women prevents that, and might be a reason women don’t join your field.

Your responsibility, beyond telling the guy to lay off, which you did, is to first of all talk math with her explicitly, so she gets some mathematical socializing done. Also be proactive in introducing her to other people who are good math socializers.

Beyond that, I think you need to tell the guy to stop a second time. Ask the guy to think about why she came to the conference, and what she wants and doesn’t want out of the experience. In other words, make him try to think about her perspective rather than his own dick’s perspective. Who knows, it might help, he might just be super nerdy and not actually an asshat.

If that doesn’t work, and if he is in fact an asshat, I suggest you go to her and ask her if he is bothering you. Pretending not to notice isn’t helping her, and she probably has nobody to appeal to and could use an ally. If she says yes, then with her permission, go back to the guy and tell him he is officially bothering her. I guess that would actually work.

Third scenario is when even that doesn’t work, in which case I would go to the organizer of the conference and suggest that the harasser be asked to leave the conference.

I’d be super interested to hear your thoughts, and in particular what you think would happen if you had actually gone to the organizers. Of course, if you were one of the organizers yourself, I’d say you should have threatened the guy with expulsion earlier on.

Write back and tell me more details and tell me whether this advice was helpful!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Why EW? What is wrong with “He went on way too many dates too quickly”? What makes you the judge of what constitutes too many, when you yourself admit that you “have taken myself out of the sex game altogether – or at least the traditional sex game” so your opinion on traditional sex game (which is exactly what this guy is doing) is clearly biased. He is a modern empowered man who is exploring his options before settling down. What you wrote is nothing different than “slut-shaming” just reversing the gender. I hope you will exercise greater sensitivity in the future posts.



I think you must be referring to my response to Huh in this past column in reference to the alleged math genius who “hacked” OK Cupid. And I think you misunderstand me.

I am all for slutty behavior. In fact I am super sex positive. If the guy were just trying to get lots of great sex with lots of amazing women, then more power to him. I’d tell him about Tinder and I’d even direct him to critiquemydickpic for useful and amusing advice.

But actually he was having one or two dates per day looking for love. What?! That’s way too much emotional drainage. How can anyone remain emotionally receptive if they can’t even remember people’s names? I’d be much much happier for him, and I wouldn’t be judgmental, if he had been bringing home a different woman every night for mind-blowing sex. Youth!!

So, if you want to complain about my “ew”, then I think you’d need to say that, if someone can fuck anything that moves, they should also be able to love anything that moves. I’m not sure there’s a name for this but maybe “love-shaming?”.

In any case, I stand by my “ew”: I don’t think loving one or two people per day is possible. And the woman he ended up with found him, which was different and broke his cycle, kind of proving my point.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a statistician with four-or-so years of work experience, but currently in the last half year or so of a applied bayesian stats PhD. I have seen the rise of R and Statistics as a hot, talked about subject. And for some reason, I am getting nervous about all the new cool kids that play around on Kaggle; that they will take ALL THE JOBS, and that there will be no space for slightly less cool, more classically trained statisticians such as myself. After all, all we’re doing is a bit of running a glm, or a cluster analysis, or some plotting. A monkey could learn that in three months. Sometimes I wish everyone would stay away and let me have all the datasets for myself.

Am I being unreasonably nervous about the future?

Have Stats Want to Analyze

Dear HSWA,

First, I wanna say, I had high hopes for your sign off until I wrote it out. Then I was like, wtf?! I even googled it but all I came back with was the Hampton Shaler Water Authority. And I am pretty sure that’s not what you meant. And keeping the “t” in didn’t help.

Second, I’ve got really good advice for you. Next time you’re in an interview, or even if you’re just on a bus somewhere with someone sitting next to you who allows you to talk, mention that Kaggle competitions are shitty bars for actual data scientists, because most of the work of the data scientist is figuring out what the actual question is, and of course how to measure success.

Those things are backed into each Kaggle competition, so hiring people who are good at Kaggle competitions is like hiring the chef who has been supplied with a menu, a bunch of recipes, and all the ingredients to run your new restaurant. Bad idea, because that’s the job of the chef if he’s actually good. In other words, it’s not actually all that impressive to be able to follow directions, you need to be creative and thoughtful.

Make sure you say that to your interviewer, and then follow it up with a story where you worked on a problem and solved it but then realized you’d answered the wrong question and so you asked the right question and then solved that one too.

I’m not nervous for you, thoughtful statisticians are in high demand. Plus you love data, so yeah you’re good.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve been working as faculty in a new department this year and I have repeatedly had the feeling that the support staff is not treating me the way they would if I were 50 and male instead of young and female (although with the rank of professor).

It’s small things like roundly scolding me for using a coffee mug from the wrong cupboard, or hinting I should make sure the kitchen cleaning is easy for staff (I’m not messy!), or the conference support staff ceasing to help with basic support on a conference (and complaining about me to other people), or wanting me to walk some mail to another building.

I realize this is all small potatoes. But I have started to feel like by just taking it passively (e.g. smiling and nodding) I might be saving myself time and anger now but I’m helping to perpetuate the system. I rigorously avoid confrontation and I think I’m typically regarded as a very friendly and helpful team player by my peers. (How could I prove bias anyway, and would confrontation help?). But I’m not sure I can spend my whole life putting up with small potatoes along with the bigger potatoes I encounter from time to time.

Spud Farmer Considering Pesticides

Dear SFCP,

First of all, again, disappointed your sign-off didn’t spell anything. But will let it pass.

Second of all, my guess is that they are sexist. I have a prior on this because I’ve encountered so much sexism in this exact way.

Third of all, I’m also guessing they are administrative people in academia, which means they are also just barely able and/or willing to do their jobs. Again, experience, and since I am administration now in academia, I am allowed to call it. Some people are great, most people are not.

Fourth, I don’t know why you are “rigorously avoiding confrontation” here. The very first thing you should do is choose your tiny battles wisely and create small but useful confrontation. Examples:

  • Someone asks you to mail a letter. You say, “oh who usually mails letters? I will be sure to bring it to them.”
  • Someone doesn’t want to do their part in helping with basic support on conferences. You say, “Oh that’s not your job? I am so sorry. Who should I be asking for help on this?”
  • Someone scolds you for using the wrong coffee cup or some such nonsense. You say, “I am new here and I don’t know the rules but I will be sure to remember this one! I am one of those people with a strong work ethic, and it’s great to see how people around here pull together and make things happen.” You know, be aspirational.

Fifth, if it comes to it, get a faculty ally to explain which staff are bitter and why, and which of them are juts plain nuts, and which ones do everyone else’s job. Useful information. Make sure it’s an ally! Complaining about this stuff to the wrong person could give you a reputation as a complainer.

Sixth, do not let this stuff build up inside you! Make it an amusing part of your day to see how people wiggle out of their responsibilities and blame other people for their mistakes. And keep in mind that the faculty are probably the biggest and best examples of such behavior.


Auntie P


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia welcomes you after one week away celebrating her middle son’s and the nation’s birthday. She’s not sure she will be able to incorporate such a topic into the Q&A so she’s jumping on the opportunity to spread the love emanating from this video (hat tip Mike Hill):

It comes from this webpage entitled Putting the Crotch Into Crochet which you really need to check out if the above video titillates, which really how could it not.

To business! Aunt Pythia is doing a speed round today, after grabbing her oldest from a JFK redeye and before making said son his favorite breakfast of banana and chocolate chip pancakes.

You ready? Strap on your seat belts, we’re still driving the luxury Winnebego!

Without further ado, let’s begin. And please, after enjoying the on-board cheese and cracker snacks, do your best to

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,

Seven years ago I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s grow in back four times since, once during chemotherapy. Doctors consistently toss around words like “inevitable” and “incurable” when talking about my tumor and its recurrence.

But still, I have probably at least a decade, maybe more, depending on how medical science goes. And that’s a long time to spend alone.

But when I go out on dates, I feel like I’m leading women on by not disclosing my potential expiration date. When in a relationship would you recommend revealing this key fact?

Not Left Brained

Dear NLB,

First of all, I am sorry this is happening to you, it sucks.

Second of all, this is your private information, and you have no obligation to tell people private stuff before you’re ready. When you go on a date with someone, that’s merely an offer to spend an evening with someone, and most people don’t think beyond that 4 hour obligation, nor should you.

At the same time, you do have the obligation to not mislead, as everyone does. So third of all, that means that you wouldn’t want to start living with someone or otherwise get serious without them knowing your status.

I imagine this kind of thing comes up almost immediately in relationships, possible even as soon as the first date, when a woman might ask you if you want children. My suggestion is to tell her, or anyone else mentioning long term plans, that you don’t have long-term plans for anything, nor are you expecting to. That is sufficiently vague – yet also sufficiently transparent – so nobody would accuse you of being misled. Women who want kids, say, or to get married, will interpret that appropriately. It will also sort out people who hang out with you simply to enjoy your company, which I assume is what you’re going for.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Auntie P,

I’m a woman in a graduate program which is heavily female-dominated (so not math, clearly). Like most grad students, I’ve got some dear friends and some real stinkers in my cohort, with plenty in between.

I was having lunch this week with one of the newer students, “Belle”, in the program. Ostensibly this was a working lunch, but somehow Belle managed to squeeze in the fact that she was in a new and exciting relationship with another woman in the program, “Linda”.

The problem is that I’m much better friends with Linda than I am with Belle, and Linda isn’t out. To anyone (or at least anyone in the program), including me. Well, until now.

How do I handle this? Do I gently inform Belle that Linda is closeted and she needs to get her approval before outing her, even to her friends? Or do I hope that she notices on her own what she’s doing, and notices before she does something damaging? Also, when I’m around Linda, do I continue to act as if I know nothing about her sexuality? (Honestly, this isn’t that hard, since her personal life is not something she brings up much.) Also, when I’m in a social situation where both of them are present, do I act as if I don’t know they’re together (and be awkward towards Belle) or as if I do (thus putting Linda in a bind)?

Closets Inform Every Lunch I Take Out


Nice sign-off! I had to use a Spanish dictionary, but I’m impressed.

OK so first I’ll give you good advice and then I’ll tell you what I’d do.

The good advice is to stay out of it and pretend you are oblivious. It’s really none of your business and you don’t want to get in the middle of something potentially messy.

The thing I’d do is tell Linda what happened, so she can address it with Belle if in fact it’s not what she wants. After all, Linda is your friend and she should know what’s going on.

Tell me what happens!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I still wonder if brute force, generate and test is a viable method for discovering good parameter settings for a system. I don’t like how long the programs take to run, but they seem to provide good information. I assume that you would have a better idea, just because you probably would be in the “neat” perspective, while I am definitely, and in long standing, a “scruffy”.

Lost in Space

Dear Lost,

I have practically no idea what you’re talking about but I like people who call themselves both lost and a scruffy. As for brute force optimization, yes go ahead but remember to have a clean data set to test your parameters on, because you’re surely overfitting.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

To what extent are women obliged to “stand and fight” when working in fields that are male-dominated and where they feel slighted on a regular basis? I am tired of seeing people to go my male colleagues for information in which I have superior expertise, for example. And god forbid you should be a woman working in computational/applied mathematics since applied math is already looked down upon. Even male TA’s are disrespectful.

On the one hand, if all the women are pushed away, we have no women to serve as role models for the next generation. On the other, each of us has only one life to live. I feel that I deserve to be happy, deserve to be respected, and so on.

I am pretty fed up. I don’t want to become one of the bitter and bitchy ones, and I don’t want to give up my career goals. Any thoughts?

Woman in Computing

Dear WiC,

There is absolutely no obligation at all to stand and fight, by any woman or man, whatsoever. It’s a silly argument that one should role model for a position that’s miserable. It’s almost ludicrously bait and switch, in fact.

Having said that, there’s usually a reason that people are competitive with each other. In business it’s almost always about money (or status, but those two are highly correlated). In academics it’s all about status, and men do it to each other as well, although the fight is dirtier when it’s directed towards women.

So, I’m not sure this will help, but if you see the fighting and competition as a direct product of the system, it might help you to take it less personally. Personally, I’ve been in so many different contexts, and I exist as such a threat against other people (both men and women), that I recognize sexist pushback almost as a sport (how does sexist pushback work in journalism? Oh, that’s how).

I’m not saying it never gets to me, because it does, but not for long. Because in the end it’s an external distraction, and staying external is always a mistake, just look at the dieting industry.

My best advice is to keep your eyes on the prize: figure out what your agenda is, and go for it. And don’t be surprised that, as you get closer to the goal, people will be more threatened, not less, and they will embarrass themselves with bad behavior. Don’t get distracted, because you have to stay internally focused.

In other words, it’s not about some vague obligation to society. It’s about a very real obligation towards yourself, which you set.

Good luck!

Aunt P


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


Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia has missed you guys, and apologizes for the last two weeks of lost advice-giving opportunities. Her metaphorical advice bus broke down, but it’s back on the road again, it’s got a full tank of gas, and we’re ready to drive anywhere. It’s kind of a luxury winnebego advice bus today, I’m thinking. Here’s the exterior:


Action shot!

And here’s the interior, before the Aunt Pythia advice seekers get there:

The disco ball is currently recessed.

The disco ball is currently recessed.

Aunt Pythia is either up in front, driving, or she’s reading her new and already beloved copy of The Cartoon Guide to Statistics by Larry Gonick and Wollcott Smith.

Without further ado, let’s begin. And please, after enjoying the on-board cheese and cracker snacks, do your best to

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,

Thank you for publishing my responses to your Alternative Dating Questions a while back: that was fun! As for getting the “dog or cat” question wrong, it was probably the easiest of the ten for me to answer, on the grounds that when I was young, most of the local canine population decided to redress the “humans eat hotdogs” balance on me, even though I never liked the damned things myself. So I am prejudiced – but with good reason.

I’ve now tried out your questions on my friend Female And Remote And Well As Yummy, and these are her answers (and mine):

  1. 1.How sexual are you? (super important question)  This morning – not very; Approx 8/10 (but sometimes only 2/10, and occasionally 11/10)
  2. How much fun are you? (people are surprisingly honest when asked this) 7/10; In the right company, this can reach 4/10
  3. How awesome do you smell? (might need to invent technology for this one) I smell fantastic; Only about 3/10, I’m afraid, but I could scrub up a bit
  4. What bothers you more: the big bank bailout or the idea of increasing the minimum wage? The big bank bailout; Neither – both bore me
  5. Do you like strong personalities or would you rather things stay polite? Strong personalities; I’d rather things stay polite? 
  6. What do you love arguing about more: politics or aesthetics? Æsthetics [she didn't actually answer with the ligatured a and e, but it's a cultural difference we've discussed many times, so I felt justified in correcting her]; Politics, just
  7. Where would you love to visit if you could go anywhere? England; The Antarctic
  8. Do you want kids? Yes (I’m happy with those I’ve got); No
  9. Dog person or cat person? A cat person; A cat person
  10. Do you sometimes wish the girl could be the hero, and not always fall for the hapless dude at the end? Absolutely; Yes

So my question for you this week (if it’s not greedy to have another one so soon) is: Does Aunt Pythia think there is chemistry here? And if not, what does she think to the chances of at least a little physics?

Kind regards

Male And Deluded

Dear Male and Deluded,

A match made in heaven! First because you’re both cat people, and second because she agreed to fill out this ridiculous questionnaire, which she’d only do if she was interested, and which you’d only ask her to do if you were interested, the vital ingredient. I’d go easy on the spelling corrections though.

Just to be clear, though, the original point of the questionnaire was that normal dating site questions don’t actually supply you with useful information, and I thought we could improve them. So the real question is, after seeing her answers, are you more interested in her? I thought so.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m very sorry about the length of the last letter. I wasn’t in a very good way at the time of writing, and I understand if it wasn’t very comprehensible. I also managed to figure out the answer to my other question (I’m sticking with just doing as much physics as possible and hoping that my record in grad courses makes up for my previous idiocy. Hope you aren’t offended). I’ll keep this as concise as I’m capable of being.

The impossible happened. I have a girlfriend. Combined with my research starting to pick up, a possible end to my financial troubles, a grad school opportunity just peaking up on the horizon, and a good, if not perfect GPA this year (we’ll see), things are looking up. I’ve never felt this positive about my prospects in a while, in spite of the challenges I’m still facing. So, my frame of mind isn’t like it was last time, to be clear. I have two questions about my relationship:

1) I’m going to be in Germany for the summer doing research and we really haven’t been in a relationship for long. We are both a little worried about this and hope to keep going over the summer. Any suggestions for keeping the “flame” alive? She was coming off a pretty rough period when she met me, and was distraught when I was leaving, and I’ve never handled this before.

2) It all feels a little anticlimactic. Is that normal? Part of this might be my insights about life (I finally agreed to get therapy shortly after my first run in here, and it’s helped), about the fact that there is nothing wrong with being a loner and that I shouldn’t try to force myself to be otherwise. But part of it is I don’t feel as *crazy* about the person as I feel I would be about a girlfriend. It could be that what I feel should be isn’t realistic. Though I strongly enjoy her company (we’re both a little weird), I don’t even desire the sex like I thought I would. Is that normal for early relationships in life, when you are figuring everything out, or is there something else going on? I mean, I don’t plan on marrying her or anything, so isn’t that OK? I also occasionally worry about her stability and her place in life, than feel like a hypocrite because I just got some of those issues fixed.

Don’t take any of this to mean that I regret getting into the relationship, it has been a plus so far in my life.

PS: (you can cut this out if you want)

To clarify what I meant, Isaac Newton spent his entire life celibate and isolated. Sheen more than hasn’t and has probably had a lot more fun. Yet, I know who I’d rather be, and in my more misanthropic moments, I think Isaac Newton knew what he was doing. Sex is fun and should be encouraged. But ultimately, it pales in importance to other things. It’s so funny, it seems to be the worst of both worlds in America, with the sex-obsession and the puritanism simultaneously occurring.

I have a LOT of opinions and ideas for the world. Funny you mention the Ukraine, I’m ridiculously interested particularly about foreign policy/politics-I sometimes catch myself thinking about that when I need to do physics. I occasionally bore my girlfriend to tears. I had (have) a lot of problems socially, but believe me, that’s not one of them. Back when I was searching for a girlfriend, I tried to use these interests (foreign policy, literature, history, other cultures, supercomputers-the title I mentioned comes from a play) to meet people and became frustrated when it didn’t work out like I planned. I met the good lady on a dating website that I had long since given up on. The trouble is talking about mundane, day to day things or subjects that I have no interest in. When she wishes to talk about her field of interest, I try my best to hang on, but it can be tough.

Draußen vor der Tür

Dear Draußen,

Here’s the thing. Last time I cut out a bunch of your letter, but this time I left it all, except I did edit a bit (there are spaces before parentheses as well as after) to make things readable. I’m not sure why I’ve decided to do this except that I like to share my pain with my readers. I hope you appreciate this, readers!

A few things. First, congratulations on finding a girlfriend. As to whether the feeling of anti-climax is normal, I guess it depends on what exactly you expected but I’m afraid it isn’t very normal, at least not in my experience. I mean, falling in love is a rush, with dopamine and all that good stuff, so I’m going to guess you aren’t actually falling in love. Maybe your positive feelings are just relief that you’re no longer alone? That’s not the same thing.

Next, the thing about “I don’t plan on marrying her or anything, so …” makes me feel weird. Note I’m not suggesting that you should marry her, but even so it seems like you’re prematurely categorizing her as someone you won’t take seriously, which I think is strange and self-defeating. I might be wrong, and it’s quite possible I’m just responding to cultural norm which I don’t like, namely that men avoid commitment like it’s a punishment, but it just seems like, with that attitude you might not let the relationship succeed.

Finally, the last line of the letter: When she wishes to talk about her field of interest, I try my best to hang on, but it can be tough. This makes me think that either you are seriously one of the most single-minded people in the world, only interested in your immediate field, or you have very little respect for or common interest with your girlfriend, or some combination of those things. This is another red flag, but I’m not sure how you can address is besides looking for a girlfriend who works in the same field as you.

One last meta thing, and I hope I’m not being too tough on you, because you’ve obviously made progress.

I sense that you are someone who consistently sees things in terms of how they affect you. So, for example, you mention that the relationship “has been a plus so far in my life. But if you are too self-absorbed, you will miss the two most crucial elements of successful relationships: first, enjoying making the other person happy and, what is the flip side of the same coin, feeling grateful that the other person will put up with you. I spend about half of my time being grateful that my partner puts up with me, which is probably not enough, and that gratitude makes my marriage work better.

Does that make sense? Can you be grateful for her patience with you, and can you take pleasure in making her feel secure and loved? If you can, and if you can do that consistently, then I don’t think your Germany trip will be too tough.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve passed my stats PhD qualifying exams and have been meeting with an adviser for several months, but want to leave my PhD and become a Data Scientist (or something like that). The problem is I haven’t interned since acquiring my stats skills.

Should I apply for semester internships (these can be completed while taking a course or two and doing research at my program) and a summer 2015 internship and then leave my program (hopefully with a job secured)? Should I also be applying for jobs this coming school year? I’m hesitant to apply for jobs right now as I’d like to improve my computation skills and will be taking a Machine Learning course in the fall. Should I tell my adviser? I don’t want to have to leave the program yet as many internships require you to be in a grad program, and many jobs require past internship experience.

Thank you so much your time!

– Slightly Hyperventilating

Dear Slightly,

If I’m a company looking for a data scientist I’m super happy to hire you after you’ve passed your quals, taken Machine Learning, and acquired keen computational skills. So yes, it’s a great plan.

As for telling your advisor, I think it depends on what they are like and whether they think everyone should be an academic or at least strive to be. Maybe ask other students of this advisor who have left or stayed and see what advice they give?

Good luck, and tell me how it goes!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

Final exams (3rd year university) are around the corner and though I have studied throughout the year I feel I’m still falling short of knowing enough to pass these exams. I keep saying if I don’t pass my finals at least I can retake them but this doesn’t seem to calm my nerves.

Are there any suggestions you can offer to chill (please spare me the British prewar ‘keep calm…’ quotes)?


Anxious about failing

Dear Anxious,

My guess is this advice is coming a little late, but here it is anyway: get together with other students – more than one other, and on separate days – who are also studying for this test and ask them questions and have them ask you stuff. It will surprise you how much you already know and it will solidify your learning to explain stuff to other people.

Good luck!

Auntie P


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Peoples! Peoples!!

Aunt Pythia is super glad to be here. It’s a gorgeous day, Aunt Pythia has super fun plans that involve this place in Morristown, New Jersey, and the world is looking bright and colorful and happy. Aunt Pythia’s usual skeptical gloom has given way to rainbows and puppies (Aunt Pythia is a dog person).

Are you with me peoples?! Give it up for life! Give it up for humanity!!

Having said that, Aunt Pythia has more than her usual number of slapdowns to administer today, as you will soon see below.

Don’t be intimidated, though, folks! After watching the abuse, do your best to

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,

Have you seen this, combining two blog interests?


Dear Huh,

So yeah, shortest Aunt Pythia question ever. Turns out “this” is an article about yet another person who “hacked” OKCupid to find the love of their life. A male mathematician who dove headlong into the data mining of love. Ho hum.

Please also see [another earlier article], where it was a woman instead of a man. I can’t find it now because this article became so popular that it’s cockblocking my google searches. Wait, I think she gave a TED talk as well. Oh yeah here she is! And she reverse-engineered the algorithm, too. And honestly she’s telling her own story which is way more engaging than that article.

Anyhoo, here’s the thing. First of all, ew. He went on way too many dates too quickly. I’m glad he found love eventually, but let’s face it, he was making himself less receptive, not more receptive, by going on all those dates. Plus he was posing artificially based on his “mathematical research,” which came down to a clustering algorithm. Plus the woman he eventually proposed to FOUND HIM. Plus ew.

I think this reaction post said it best:

“…the idea that math (or, more broadly, “formulas”) can be used as a dating tactic is a surprisingly popular belief based on a number of very flawed premises, many of which reveal pickup artist-flavor misogynist attitudes among the nerdy white guys who champion them.”

Now given that I also have an example of a woman doing this, I’m not gonna claim it’s all about sexism (although there’s more than a veneer of nerdiness!). Rather, it’s all about the weird non-human mindset. Here’s another stab at what I’m talking about:

“But much of the language used in the story reflects a weird mathematician-pickup artist-hybrid view of women as mere data points anyway, often quite literally: McKinlay refers to identity markers like ethnicity and religious beliefs as “all that crap”; his “survey data” is organized into a “single, solid gob”; unforeseen traits like tattoos and dog ownership are called “latent variables.” By viewing himself as a developer, and the women on OkCupid as subjects to be organized and “mined,” McKinlay places himself in a perceived greater place of power. Women are accessories he’s entitled to. Pickup artists do this too, calling women “targets” and places where they live and hang out “marketplaces.” It’s a spectrum, to be sure, but McKinlay’s worldview and the PUA worldview are two stops along it. Both seem to regard women as abstract prizes for clever wordplay or, as it may be, skilled coding. Neither seems particularly aware of, or concerned with, what happens after simply getting a woman to say yes.”

So, again, it’s not just men who do this. Women who are ABSOLUTELY OBSESSED WITH FINDING MR. RIGHT also do this. They stop thinking about men as people and start thinking of them as bundles of attributes. You have to be tall! And weigh more than me! And culturally Jewish!

If you want to think about this more, and how deeply damaging it is to society and our concepts of ourselves and our expectations of the future, not to mention how we perceive children, then take a look at the book Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. It’s super fascinating.

So there you go, a long answer to a short question.

One last thing: I’m not saying that you should give up on your own algorithms and trust OKCupid’s algorithms. Far from it! I just think that the key thing is to stay human. Plus all online dating sites are asking the wrong questions, as I mentioned here.

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m about to start a PhD in Math at a top-ranked place. I’m pretty sure I won’t end up in academia for a variety of personal reasons (mostly that my partner is a non-academic with a job that needs to be in New York, SF, or DC). What should I be doing my first year/summer to make sure I’m in a reasonably good place for a non-academic job hunt 5 or 6 years from now?

(And to make matters more complicated, both finance and government creep me out morally, but I really want to end up somewhere with some fun, interesting mathematics.)

Higher Education, Less Professionalism

Dear HELP,

Nice sign-off!

Make sure you know how to code, make sure you know how it feels to work in a company, make sure you keep your eye on what makes you feel moral and useful and interested. Oh, and read my book! I wrote it for people like you.

By the way, I’m hoping that, by the time you finish your Ph.D., there are better non-academic jobs out there for morally centered people with math skills. I’m just feeling optimistic today, I can’t explain it.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

With data science hype at an all-time high (and rising), I’ve been hearing of more and more people who are deciding to make a career change to data science. These acquaintances are smart, science-minded people, but without any background in advanced math, statistics, or computer science. An example background would be a bachelors degree in Chemistry. They are planning to take a few online courses, or a semester-long course or two, and then enter the job market.

My question is, do you think there’s a place for “data scientists” like these? Who’ve learned all the programming/machine learning/statistics they can in 3 months part-time but nothing beyond that? As someone with a strong technical background, I am skeptical that data scientists can be successfully churned out so quickly. Then again, if the hype is all it’s hyped up to be, maybe they’ll all get great jobs. Wondering what your take is.

Some Kooky Elitist Person Trying to Intuit Climate


Niiiiice sign-off! I am super proud.

Two things. First, I certainly believe that anyone who has a high general level of intelligence and works hard can learn a new field diligently. So I don’t doubt the intentions or efforts of our chemist friends.

On the other hand, do data science jobs allow for follow-up training and – even more importantly – thinking? I’m guessing some do but most don’t. So yes, I agree that for many of these people, it’s a disappointment waiting to happen. And yes, certainly 3 months training does very little. At best you can start thinking a new way, but it’s up to you to actually make things happen with that new mindset.

They might find out their job is really nothing like the job they thought they had. They might end up being excel or SQL database monkeys, or they might find out their job is a front so that the company can claim to be doing “data science.” Worst case they’re asked to audit and approve models they don’t understand which are being used in a predatory manner so they’re on the hook when shit gets real.

On the other hand, what are the options really? It’s a new field and there’s no major for it (UPDATE: there are post-bacc programs popping up everywhere, for example here and here). This is what new fields look like, a bunch of amateurs coming together trying to figure out what they’re doing. Sometimes it works brilliantly and sometimes it produces frauds who ride the hype wave because they’re good at that.

In short, stay skeptical but don’t presume that your friends and acquaintances have bad intent. Ask them probing questions, when you see them, about which above scenario they’re in, it might help them figure it out for themselves. Unless that’s creepy and/or obnoxious.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

How useful do you think “generate-and-test” results are? I am searching for good parameter settings using recent history from the last twelve days. For example, I just checked the report that is being generated and saw successful results eight times out of twelve. I actually could run a check against history, not including the last result and see how often the next result is good. Is this crazy or what?

Sleepless in Mesquite

Dear Sleepless,

I have never heard of “generate and test” so I googled it and found this, which honestly seems ridiculous for the following reason: how will you ever know your “solution” works?

So there is an example where it will work that illustrates my overall point. If you know that you have a line (“the solution”) and you know two (different) points that are on that line, then once you find a line with those points you know you’ve found the solution, because it’s unique.

Similarly, if you know your solution is a quadratic equation, then all you need to do is test it on three (different) points and you know you’re good.

But in general, how do you “test” a solution? Unless you are given, a priori, the form of the solution, to test your solution in general you’d need to try it on every point in the universe where you care about the solution working. That doesn’t sound like a useful approach.

I know I’m talking abstractly here, but you gave me very little to work with. In any case 8 out of 12 doesn’t sound very convincing, and 12 doesn’t sound big enough for much of anything. That is, even if you got 12 out of 12 I still wouldn’t be convinced you’re done unless I know more information.

I hope that was helpful!

Aunt Pythia


One more thing which didn’t come up in my questions but I wanted to mention (hat tip David Opela): this article, entitled There’s No Such Thing As A Slut, which I also posted recently on mathbabe. Most important excerpt, as noted by a commenter, is this:

Armstrong notes that midway through their college experience, none of the women had made any friendships across the income divide.

Take a look!


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice, hungover edition

You might notice that Aunt Pythia’s advice is getting posted later than usual. That’s because Aunt Pythia is a wee bit slow on the uptake this morning due to a mighty exciting and exhausting week followed by celebrations of said week. Please bear with her as she gives groggy, possibly irrelevant suggestions to your lovely, deeply and heartfelt questions.

And please, after reading her worse-than-usual advice this morning/ afternoon,

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,

I seriously consider the “Ask Aunt Pythia” series on as the greatest and bloggiest thing on the blogging planet (granted, I explored only a part of it, and this is only an individual opinion).

Is this the right place to say it?

Mount Trouillet With Love

Dear MTWL,

Why yes, yes it is. Thank you darling.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

As a grad student, I feel guilty constantly. Guilty that I am probably not spending enough time on my research, guilty that I don’t spend enough time on teaching, guilty that I sleep too much… You get the idea.

To have a successful academic career, how much should one be working, assuming average intelligence? Also, how should one avoid feeling guilty all the time?

A Grad Student Who Loves To Sleep


Sleep sounds like a gooooooood idea right about now, I think I will.

One of the things I don’t miss about being an academic is the constant guilt I imposed upon myself. It was all me, and I can’t blame anyone else. I can blame nothing except possibly the intense and competitive environment, which again, I chose to live in.

It was, I guess, the internal drive to write papers and stay abreast of my field, and without it I might never have done those things, but it sucked. I don’t even think I could summon up guilt feelings like that if I tried nowadays. Instead I do things out of sheer excitement about the ideas. I guess sometimes I feel frustrated that I haven’t had time to do the stuff I want to, but that frustration is definitely preferable to the old guilt. And come to think of it, a much more efficient way to work too.

My advice to you is to give yourself one day a week to do stuff that you just totally love, and banish guilt from your life. You might end up getting more done that way, and then you could expand it to two days a week, who knows. Tell me how that works for you!

Auntie P

p.s. Please work on your sign-offs. “AGSWLTS” means nothing to me.

p.p.s. Never skimp on sleep. Skimp on reading Aunt Pythia, but never skimp on sleep.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have lived in a different country in each decade of my life and currently use three different languages on an every day basis. No language do I master well, especially in speaking and listening. The doctor says that I am healthy, and I try to study and practice as much as possible. But, I have communication difficulties in any language. Should a more drastic action be taken? For example, find a job that requires more oral communication. Or, move back to my mother tongue country and try to reactivate my native language ability? 


Smurf, or Schtroumpf

Dear Smurf/Schtroumpf,

I just wanna start this out by saying how very much I enjoyed the smurfs as a child. It was weird, the show was never very good but I always ascribed to those little blue creatures much more interesting lives than they seemed to have. At the end of each episode I remember thinking, “and now they’ll go back to even more interesting things they do in their village in the woods with mushroom houses.”

I think that was their magic, in fact, to seem more interesting than they are. Smallish confession for Aunt Pythia readers: I have been doing my best to summon up a similar more-interesting-than-she-seems cachet pretty much all my life. That’s right, everything I’ve ever done or ever will do goes back to my fascination with the smurfs, and especially papa smurf, who always seemed wiser than even Alan Greenspan back in the day (“NOT LONG NOW!”).

As for your question, I’m of the opinion that people get good at what they focus on and what they are patient for. If you really want to focus on getting good at a given language, then you’ll need to stop moving countries and just forgive yourself for not already knowing stuff you don’t know, it will come with time. My husband, who is not particularly good with languages, has gotten really good at English since I met him 20 years ago.

Stay blue!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Your thoughts on the mathematical community being possibly less empathetic than average really hit home for me, because my experiences of being trans and attempting to do math have been really pretty miserable.

So with that said, let’s confront some cissexism:

Plenty of human females have penises. Trans women are female.
Plenty of human males have vaginas. Trans men are male.
(and of course such porn exists)

Talking about sexism in science is interesting. But we can (and should!) do it without erasing the experiences and existence of trans people, whose gender and sex are valid and real.

Further reading here.


Cisnormativity Is Silly

Dear CIS,

Thanks for the corrections, CIS! You are totally correct that I ignored trans women in my recent piece about female penes.

And although I strive to be empathetic, ignoring someone is a common way to be the opposite. And so I apologize, and I’ll try to be more thoughtful in the future. Thanks for writing!

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

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