Archive for the ‘Aunt Pythia’ Category

Aunt Pythia’s advice

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

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

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

This week in Montreal. From

From earlier this week in Montreal. 

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

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

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

No Bias, Really?

Dear No Bias,

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

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

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

And second:

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

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

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

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

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

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

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

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

Still One of the Underrepresented After All These Years


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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

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

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

Reports Embargoed by Crummy Lecturers, Earnestly Seeking Solace

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dearest Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

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

Much Love,

Dear Conflicted,

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

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

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

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

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

Love always,

Aunt Pythia


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

Click here for a form or just do it now:


Aunt Pythia’s advice

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

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

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

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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


Dear ES,

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

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

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

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

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

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

Not Open to Sharing With Individuals Nor Groups


Nice sign off!

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia:

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

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

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

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

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


Wants a Girl to Code or Do Math

Dear WaGtCoDM,

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

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

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

Go nerd girls!!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

Politically Against Thesis Supervisor

Dear PATS,

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

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

Aunt Pythia


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

Click here for a form.

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

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

The orange is cashmere. I got it on sale.

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

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

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

And that’s all I got today, folks.

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

please think of something

titillating, reversible, and scrumptious 

to ask Aunt Pythia

at the bottom of the page!

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

Obsessive Correlator

Dear OC,

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

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

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

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

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

Unsure and Insecure

Dear U&I,

Short answer: never.

The long answer has four parts.

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

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

My questions are:

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

Tired Introvert Mulling Interpersonal Development


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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

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

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

Closeted Around Diversity

Dear CAD,

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

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

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

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

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

Auntie P


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

Click here for a form.

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

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

We can all get in! Squeeeeeze!!!

We can all get in! Squeeeeeze!!!

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

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

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

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

to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

Wondering Tolerant Female

Dear WTF,

Great question!

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

Obsessive Correlator

Dear OC,

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

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


Even the angle of Europe on this map is mysterious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

Tenured Professor at a Singles Bar

Dear TPaaSB,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

Naughty and Salacious; Tenured Young.

Dear NaSTY,

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

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

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

Auntie P


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

Click here for a form.


Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

You guys know how much Aunt Pythia loves you, right (answer: a ton)?

OK, good. Because that means I can be honest with you. The truth is, I’ve been getting some very weird questions recently, and I’ve had to throw out a bunch of them, sifting through the weeds to find some tulips.

It’s not that I mind it when you guys make up questions. By all means, make shit up! It’s just that the made-up questions have to actually be interesting, or at least they have to have an embedded question which I can answer. So please, no more fantasies of poop in pots, thank you very much!

And just to get that image out of your minds, let me brag about my most recent knitted gift for one of my best friends:

Pattern available here:

I also knitted a matching cap. Very very cute.

Pattern available here, yarn here.

OK, all good? Fantastic! I hope you enjoy today’s tulipy column, and after you’re done,

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

to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

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


Aunt Pythia,

My partner (female) and I (also female) have been together for about ten years now. Over that timespan, she’s gained about 100 pounds. Not due to any illness, or pregnancy, just to inactivity and poor eating habits.

I don’t know how to put this any better, but I’m just simply not attracted to her in her current state. I’m actively turned off by her body shape. I know we’ll grow old, and our bodies will change naturally, but we’re not *that* old just yet. And it frustrates me that this is a result of her poor choices–this is ultimately under her control.

I have no desire to leave her. We have kids, she’s my best friend, I love her. I wish there were a switch I could turn on to be… well… turned on. From all the advice I’ve found online, I’m an asshole for feeling this way. I know weight issues are deep rooted and difficult to tackle, I’m empathetic. But this doesn’t change the fact that I’m just not attracted to the weight.

Sincerely not an asshole

Dear Sincerely,

Does this mean you guys aren’t having sex? And neither of you having sex with other people? And are you staying together because of the kids?

Look, there are plenty of marriages that become, over time, not very sexy, and for various reasons. When that happens and there are no kids, I always suggest breaking up. Because yes, it’s great to have a best friend, but if you are also a sexual person it just won’t do to live with your best friend and never get laid.

When there are kids, like there are with you, I’d suggest (possibly) staying together for the kids but (definitely) having sex with other people. The hardest part of this plan is the initial conversation, but if you aren’t having sex right now then it probably won’t really come as a surprise to anyone.

It’s not really a single conversation, of course, and it also isn’t really a negotiation: you are telling your partner that you need sex in your life and you’re going to go find it. And there’s no need to tell her all the details once it’s happening. It can be hard to say, but it’s likely still the kindest and most direct route.

What you don’t say is that if she loses 100 pounds you will be faithful. That would be hurtful and, if you’ve ever examined dieting data, useless. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter why you’re not having sex, just that you’re not having sex. Plus, other people will find your partner super hot.

Once you have that conversation, you will both be free to go be desired and be desirous, which is a better place for both of you.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Is data science an IT function, or a business function?

I work at a large financial services firm as a data scientist. At our company, we have data scientists on both sides of the wall, integrated into a data architecture group (me) or in analytics hubs across the lines of business (others).

I often question why I’m in IT. I and my business counterparts are often doing very similar work, but sit in vastly different cultures. And I personally feel the culture of business (at least in our company) is more agile and responsive than IT, which is far slower-paced and more monolithic.

Where do you see data science groups sitting? And how can I make the best of my position sitting close to IT?

Caught between two worlds

Dear Caught,

Interesting, for various reasons. First, I think of finance quants as the original data scientists, so it’s funny to me that finance firms are explicitly hiring “data scientists.”

Second, I think of data scientists as living in a third group, outside either IT or business. In some sense the modern data scientist’s job is to translate between those two worlds without being in either of them. But since that’s obviously not how they thought about it in your company, I think the best advice I can give you is to look around for another job. Turns out there are quite a few jobs out there for people with data skills.

You might have to take a pay cut, though. Finance firms tend to pay IT people well, partly for the experience of working in what is often a massively boring place.

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My friend is going for a doctorate at a top department. He has the chance to work with a world renowned scientist who scares the living daylight out of him. He knows he will never possibly be able to meet his advisor’s expectations. So my friend will do everything he can to work on the challenging problems he’s assigned alone, but he does occasionally relent and ask a question. In a few key diagrams his advisor shows him how the problem could be solved. My friend says its like an epiphany, so beautiful and simple, and that he just dreams of possibly ever be that good someday.

Meanwhile I go for a doctorate at a reasonable good department. I am working with a well funded professor who is known for landing her students top notch postdocs with amazing mathematicians. All good, except that she is very demanding and I never seem to be able to meet her expectations. I do everything I can to work on the obscure problems she assigns me but do occasionally give up and ask a question. In a few key diagrams she shows me how the problem could be solved and, boy, I feel like a complete idiot and wonder if I should even be getting a PhD.

Should I find a new advisor or should I just quit?

Brainy Incensed Adolescent Student Earning his Doctorate


Wait, what? Am I supposed to believe these stories? Or is this some kind of test about how things seem when it’s a man versus a woman that is your advisor? I’m a bit confused.

In any case, the options you’ve given – find a new advisor or quit – is missing the most obvious option, which is to continue, because being a graduate student in math, whether your advisor is a man or a woman, is a period where you constantly feel like an idiot. Constantly. So you have no perspective whatsoever.

The most important information you have given me about your future prospects is that your advisor has successful students. So just close your eyes and pretend you might be one of them someday, and keep trying, and keep asking questions, and keep feeling like an idiot, because that’s what learning feels like.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What are your thoughts on John Cochrane’s post on inequality?  I’m especially curious given that you two seem to have the exact opposite view of e.g. Dodd-Frank.

Fake Name

Dear Fake,

I have trouble reading stuff by people who only refer to taxes as “confiscatory”, so I only skimmed this. But my general feeling is that this man has spent a lifetime figuring out how to use fancy language to avoid the very simple concept of fairness. Particularly when he says:

Maybe the poor should rise up and overthrow the rich, but they never have. Inequality was pretty bad on Thomas Jefferson’s farm. But he started a revolution, not his slaves.

Sounds pretty smug to me, almost like an invitation.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I read some of your posts on working in a hedge fund. Working as a quant, is there a difference between working for a hedge fund vs. investment bank – in terms of feeling ok about the work that you do? Is that possible at all? And how do you recognize a good, honest hedge fund?


Dear T,

Hahahahahaha! Good one.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

You call yourself “super healthy fat woman”. What is your definition of healthy? How is that different from your definition of “super healthy”?


Dear NYC,

Most days I bike 12 miles. I just got a checkup and all my tests and levels are perfect. I feel incredibly strong and healthy on a daily basis and I haven’t yet reached the period of my life where I get easily injured. For me, that qualifies as “super healthy.” I’m not saying I couldn’t be healthier, say if I had better endurance running, which is hard for me because of my weight, or biking up steep hills, again hard for me.

I usually only mention this stuff because I am, happily, a counter example to the tired stereotype of the lazy fat woman. I have never been lazy, and my weight has basically nothing to do with my exercise levels.

Auntie P


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

Click here for a form.

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Quick, get on the bus! Hurry!

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

And then many, many apple pies to bake.

And then many, many apple pies to bake.

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

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

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

An obliging – and curious! – good friend

Dear Ao-ac-gf,

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

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

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

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

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

XOXOX good friend!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

Girl drowing in data

Dear Girl,

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

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

Good luck!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

Currently Unsure of my Prospects In Dating


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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

Virtually Unspeaking Leftish Parents In No-win Exercise


What a foxy sign-off!!!

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

Sorry this is only a quasi-sex question.

Sex Questions Unlikely In Near Term



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

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Pythia


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Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

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

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

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

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


Technically this is crocheted but I do that too.

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

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

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

submit yet more stolen question from old Dan Savage columns

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What is your opinion about monogamy and respect in a partnership?

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

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

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

Physically open woman engineer regretting Self limited unity tie

Dear PowerSlut,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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


Elvis Von Essende Nicholas Friedrich Lester Otto Widener IV

Dear Elvis,

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

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

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


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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


First, amazing sign-off.

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck, I’m 100% behind you!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

Creature Feature

Dear Creature,

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

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

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

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

Good luck!!

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia

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