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Aunt Pythia’s advice

December 1, 2012

Aunt Pythia is overwhelmed with joy today, readers, and not only because she gets to refer to herself in the third person.

The number and quality of math book suggestions from last week have impressed Auntie dearly, and with the permission of mathbabe, which wasn’t hard to get, she established a new page with the list of books, just in time for the holiday season. I welcome more suggestions as well as reviews.

On to some questions. As usual, I’ll have the question submission form at the end. Please put your questions to Aunt Pythia, that’s what she’s here for!


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I was one of those kids who when asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” said “Errrghm …” or maybe just ignored the question. Today I am still that confused toddler. I have changed fields a few times (going through a major makeover right now), never knew what I want to dive into, found too many things too interesting. I worry that half a life from now, I will have done lots and nothing. I crave having a passion, one goal – something to keep trying to get better at. What advice do you have for the likes of me?

Forever Yawning or Wandering Globetrotter

Dear FYoWG,

I can relate. I am constantly yearning to have enough time to master all sorts of skills that I just know would make me feel fulfilled and satisfied, only to turn around and discover yet more things I’d love to devote myself to. What ever happened to me learning to flatpick the guitar? Why haven’t I become a production Scala programmer?

It’s enough to get you down, all these unrealized hopes and visions. But don’t let it! Remember that the people who only ever want one thing in life are generally pretty bored and pretty boring. And also remember that it’s better to find too many things too interesting than it is to find nothing interesting.

And also, I advise you to look back on the stuff you have gotten done, and first of all give yourself credit for those things, and second of all think about what made them succeed: probably something like the fact that you did it gradually but consistently, you genuinely liked doing it and learning from it, and you had the resources and environment for it to work.

Next time you want to take on a new project, ask yourself if all of those elements are there, and then ask yourself what you’d be dropping if you took it on. You don’t have to have definitive answers to these questions, but even having some idea will help you decide how realistic it is, and will also make you feel more like it’s a decision rather than just another thing you won’t feel successful at.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My boss lacks leadership qualities and is untrustworthy, and I will resign soon. Should I tell his boss what I think of this boss?


Dear November,

In Aunt Pythia’s humble opinion, one of the great joys of life is the exit interview. Why go out with a whimper when you have the opportunity to go out with a big-ass ball of flame?

Let’s face it, it’s a blast to vent honestly and thoroughly on your way out the door, and moreover it’s expected. Why else would you be leaving? Because of some goddamn idiot, that’s why! Why not say who?

You’ll hear people say not to “burn bridges”. That’s boooooooring. I say, burn those motherfuckers to the ground!

Especially when you’re talking about people with whom you’d never ever work again, ever ever. Sometimes you just know it’ll never happen. And it feels great, trust me. I’m a pro.

That said, don’t expect anyone to listen to you, cuz that aint gonna happen. Nobody listens to people when they leave. Sadly, most people also don’t listen to people when they stay, either, so you’re shit out of luck in any case. But as long as you know that you’re good.

I hope that helped!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

How should I organize my bookshelf? I have 1000+ books.


Readers! I want some suggestions, and please make them nerdy and/or funny! I know I can count on you.


Please ask Aunt Pythia a question! She loves her job and can’t wait to give you unreasonable, useless, and possibly damaging counsel!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. duff daddy
    December 1, 2012 at 8:44 am

    I found that having a main project and a pet one helps me to deal with boredom and saturation. When I’m tired of the main one I switch to the pet one which puts my mind to run in background mode and come with better ideas for the other when I’m in a better mood. It makes me productive while desintoxicating too.

    Something like having a minor and a major.


  2. mathematrucker
    December 1, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Alas my exit interview two jobs ago was done by one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, so I was pretty much forced to end up settling for giving her a David Gergen-like explanation.


    • Kenny P
      December 2, 2012 at 9:24 am

      Ah, HR girls. I know a few. No matter what they say or do, they all play in the same team.


      • mathematrucker
        December 2, 2012 at 1:59 pm

        Point well taken except this was literally a small-town company with lots of good people including this woman in HR, a company that unfortunately got steered into some of capitalism’s murkier waters when the wrong captain was allowed to board ship (an all too common theme in the biz world).


  3. Jim
    December 2, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    It doesn’t matter how you shelve your books, as long as you catalogue them well. I use an online catalogue, librarything.com, where I just need to enter an ISBN and the web app goes out to library catalogues to fill in the rest of the entry. In the comments, I note where the book is shelved. So search for Deleuze and the Anti-Oedipus is shown as shelved under Freud and the Time-Image is shelved under Film. If you find it aesthetically pleasing, you could shelve your books by colour and simply note in a book’s catalogue entry which colour it’s shelved under. There are, I believe, other such services. The nice thing about librarything is that one can always download one’s own data at any time (in CSV format) so there’s no lock-in.


  4. Nimbus
    December 3, 2012 at 8:45 am

    Shelve auto-biographically: if you want to find “Oedipus” you have to remember that you realized at eighteen that you were in love with your mom and hated your dad. If you want to find “the Gruffalo” you have to remember which kid you bought it for. If you want to find a cookbook you have to remember when you were craving those spinach waffles with chicken. You can also realize quickly how much less you read since you have children.
    By the way, auntie, are you acquainted with “dear uncle e”?


  5. Society for Excellence in Bookshelf Organization
    December 3, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Many of our members struggle with the conceptually difficult task of bookshelf organization, especially our erudite and polymathematical members who typically own hundreds or thousands of books. Some stack them vertically in parallel columns 10 feet high, or as high as their ceiling allows. Others use conventional bookshelves, but alternate big and small, big and small, haphazardly, to create a sense of chaos..

    It may be surprising to hear the advice offered by our sub-commitee on organizational strategies: take them out on the street and sell them all. You don’t need them, any of them. that’s what a library is for, to organize books.

    If you have 1000 books you can probably raise at least $2000 or $3000 dollars. Take the money and buy some penny stocks and hit them 10 or 20 to 1. That gives you $20,000 or $30,000. Then repeat, until you have as much money as you think you need.

    Instead of books, get a giant flat screen TV, home movie projection system and a library card. Why worry about your books? All you do is look at them. How many do you ever read twice?


    • mathematrucker
      December 3, 2012 at 10:58 am

      Wise words. Reminds me of a long-distance bicycle tourist who substituted plastic for panniers.


  6. Dan L
    December 3, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    Organize by publisher so that it will look pretty.


  7. December 7, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    File the books by title, only convert the title to a number by taking the letter values and adding them up. Then arrange the books in numerical order, with ties broken by value of first letter, then second, etc. or alternately by value of author’s name.

    File books by number of references to 17: impractical but nice to think about.

    File books by weight: never find anything again.

    File books by gcd of side lengths rounded to the nearest integer. Not sure how to break ties.

    That was all the methods I thought of in the last 5 minutes–I’m sure there’s more.


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