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Aunt Pythia’s advice

January 26, 2013

I’m here in Nebraska at a conference for undergraduate women, already late to the morning session, so we’re going with a speed round of advice this morning. Apologies for the shallowness.

If you don’t know what you’re in for, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia, and most importantly, please submit your question at the bottom of this column.

First, let’s review last week’s advice you helped out with:


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,

Look at Savanarola’s excellent advice and also keep in mind Mathematrucker’s maxim, “life is to enjoy”

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia.

Can something as vast and as complex as the universe ever be reduced to the scope of human mental capacities, or are there natural limits to what we can know?



There are definitely natural limits to what we know, but even more to what we wonder about.



Aunt Pythia,

If you could make any robot, what would it do?


Robocop: It would be an Alf-like character sitting in the corner and making wise-cracks.



Aunt Pythia,

Favorite planet?


Elon: earth.


Aunt Pythia,

I teach statistics and find myself often getting frustrated and angry at my students. They don’t want to do any work, but they all expect A’s anyway. They seem to think that blessing me with their presence (although certainly not their attention) is enough. I lay it all out for them at the start of the semester, yet still have a line of whiners out the door 3 months later when their grades reflect their ACTUAL level of effort and understanding. How should I handle this frustration? Am I just not cut out for teaching?

Universities would be great without all the students

Dear Universities,

Two suggestions. First, be very precise on the first day about your grading policy and expectations for the class, and tell them it’s fixed. This avoids future people whining about turning stuff in late (of course you might have a policy about turning stuff in late but in that case hold firm to it).

Second, keep in mind that as young people and as Facebook users, these kids are used to having different personas in different places in their lives, and use that fact to manipulate influence them in your class. Which is to say, talk about how awesome they are and how hard they work, and how you know they know they can’t learn this stuff without working hard, and you know they’re up to the task.

A good strong dose of early positive encouragement prevents a lot of later negative reinforcement in my experience.

Of course, there will always be students who just don’t do the work for one reason or another (if it’s because of a serious problem, and if they have a doctor’s note, please be kind). In that case refer to the very clearly spelt out rules and don’t give it a further thought.

It’s also possible you aren’t cut out for teaching. If you have a visceral reaction against being encouraging to students then that’s a sign. If so, please do everyone a favor and get out.

Aunt Pythia


For you guys, have fun with it!

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I need a pie crust recipe and a personal lubricant recommendation. Please try to incorporate lard into both answers.

Apple Pie Seductress


And please submit questions, thanks!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. JSE
    January 26, 2013 at 10:02 am

    “Second, keep in mind that as young people and as Facebook users, these kids are used to having different personas in different places in their lives”

    This is true of both young and old people and was true long before Facebook!


  2. January 27, 2013 at 2:30 am

    About that statistics course… This is well worth reading: (from:Fostering Learning in the Networked World: The Cyberlearning Opportunity
    and Challenge
    A 21st Century Agenda for the National Science Foundation1
    Report of the NSF Task Force on Cyberlearning)
    “Some open full courses already have the capacity to provide such personalization. In particular, the Carnegie Mellon cognitive tutor courses have this capacity. In a recent experiment, a randomized group of Carnegie Mellon students used the cognitive tutor statistics course and, given only half the time (a 7-week semester), were more successful on the final examination than students who had taken the normal full-semester lecture course (Lovett, Meyer & Thille, in press). The power of technology to provide personalization will become greater and greater as we improve the quality of the instructional aspect of the Web- based courses. Ensuring the quality of the content requires considerable one-time costs as it is built into modular courses and from then on some modest updating costs. However, the net costs over even a short period and the guarantee of high-quality content for our students suggests that we can imagine a substantial increase in access and learning.”

    There is a lot if other useful stuff on STEM learning via cyber learning …


  3. January 27, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Hmm… I wonder what the limits are to what we can wonder about?


  4. Wogglebug
    January 28, 2013 at 12:57 am


    Work in a cool room. 68 degrees or less. I’m not kidding; my recipe dates from before the invention of central heating. Also before automatic mixers; adjust as necessary.

    6 ounces flour
    4 ounces butter (or 2 oz. butter and 2 oz. lard)
    2 ounces water
    extra water in a spray bottle
    extra flour

    Cream the butter.
    Put half the creamed butter in a bowl with the flour. Mash all together until it is as mixed as it’s going to get and looks like cornmeal.
    Dump in the water and mix a few turns until the water is approximately evenly distributed and the flour is starting to clump together.
    Cover the bowl and let sit for 5 to 20 minutes.
    Pick a CLEAN counter or table, dust thinly with new flour from the bag, and dump out your dough. Roll out the ‘dough’ to max 1/2 inch thick. If it’s very dry and crumbly, spray the dry parts with a little water.

    Now, remember the rest of your butter? Take some of that and smear it over half the dough. Lever up the non-buttered half, fold it over the buttered half, and roll out thinner (1/4 to 1/8 inch thick).

    Smear butter over the MIDDLE THIRD of the dough, fold the right part on top, smear that with butter, fold the left part on top, roll out again.

    Now we”re going vertical. Smear butter over the MIDDLE (VERTICAL) THIRD of the dough, fold the top part on top, smear that with butter, fold the bottom part on top, roll out again.

    If all your butter is used at this point, you’re done. If you have butter left, you can do one more smear-and-fold-and-roll-out.

    The thirds are to make sure that edges are always incorporated into the middle.
    If at any point you have trouble with the dough sticking to the counter, use a rubber scraper to get it up, then dust the counter with flour.

    1/8 inch thick piecrust is currently fashionable and will give you (maybe just barely) two crusts. 1/4 inch is old-fashioned and nice if your piecrust tastes good. Your crust will taste better if you add sugar and sweet spices (for a dessert pie).


  1. February 2, 2013 at 7:21 am
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