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Aunt Pythia’s advice

February 16, 2013

Readers, I was really close to declaring this the last Aunt Pythia column.

My explanation was gonna be this: I am finding myself surprisingly unqualified to answer most of the questions submitted. I thought I was a loud mouth and would have no problem, but when people ask me hugely philosophical questions about the existence of god, or ask me questions about how to change fields from physics to politics, it just makes me feel very unthoughtful and small.

So in other words, as a mode of self-preservation, I was going to discontinue this practice and go back to doing stuff that makes me feel smart.

But after doing the actual writing (which you will find below) I’ve changed my mind. It’s too much fun! But I have fired you guys from answering a question each week since you suck at that.

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. Most importantly,

Please submit your question at the bottom of this column!!


Let’s start out with the question from last time that remained unanswered:

Dear Aunt Pythia,

As a graduate student, I enjoy attending departmental teas, if only because it’s an excuse to get away from the books for a few minutes. However, my department recently started having some of our teas sponsored by a trading firm. As somebody who has concerns about the finance industry, I am bothered by this. I thought about dumping all the tea in one of the fountains on campus, but I’d like to find a more constructive approach. Any suggestions?

Tea Party Patriot


Interesting. Let me ask you this. Is the money given with strings attached? Do they also expect to be able to recruit math people on campus? Do they advertise their firm in some way at the teas? How do you happen to know who’s sponsoring it?

If one of the above is true, then yes I’d say dump the tea in a fountain, and object to the blatant commercialization of your department. But if none of the above is true, and if I haven’t forgotten something, then the money is a kind of bribe, but it’s lower level.

That is, your department is psyched to not pay for cookies, but over time the money that it’s saving will be used for other things, and people’s taste in cookies will be inflated because of the extra fancy cookies that finance people can afford, and there will be this weird dependency set up. At that point they may try to advertise or recruit, which is in my opinion totally outrageous on a campus and deserves some fountain dumping. Hopefully you can band together with other outraged folk and make a big scene of it.

Another possibility: if they are recruiting on campus, tell me where in advance and I’ll come recruit for Occupy at the next table.

Good luck, Patriot!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Dear Aunt Pythia, after living for quite a lot time I think my life has been mostly erratic and not driven by myself but for random forces beyond my scope. I don’t mean I am in a bad position. In fact I am quite happy and own everything I and my family need to live comfortably. However a lot of people think of themselves as making long term plans and succeding (or failing) at them. Sometimes I think there are essentialy different kinds of people (with and without living plans speaking on binary mode), sometimes I think they just deceive themselves. What do you think about? Do you have a long term plan for yourself?

Rooted At Nothing Durable On My Living Years


First, let me speak of my gratitude for your excellently chosen fake name, which translates so beautifully into an appropriate word (see how RANDOMLY did that, people?). Thank you so so much.

Second, you have essentially described me twice, in different parts of my life. So when I was 15 and went to math camp, I decided to become a math professor. For twenty pleasant years I was one of those people with a plan. Actually, my life wasn’t consistently pleasant during those years, but having a plan was a consistently pleasant part of my life.

But ever since I quit my math professor job at Barnard College in 2007, I’ve been adrift in a world without a plan. I essentially don’t know what the future will bring, nor do I want to know.

Back to your question: are long-term planners deceiving themselves? Yes and no.

Yes because, by dint of it being such a very long time before your plan is fulfilled, you will be a very different person by that time, and who knows if you will still have the same goals and interests. Chances are you won’t, and you’ll be less naive about the negatives of your plan, and your role models will have disappointed you, etc. Long-term plans are filled with bittersweet consequences.

On the other hand, I do think it can be good to have some plan, especially if you’re a woman. I don’t regret getting my Ph.D. in math for a second, partly because I learned so much (about math but also about myself, as trite as it sounds) and because it’s a pretty flexible achievement – people respect that on your resume. So in fact I tell young math nerd girls all the time to make it a goal of theirs to get their Ph.D. and then decide what’s next. I suggest that people have a long-term plan but keep in mind they can always change it.

Having a plan helped me make decisions, so in that sense it acted as a crutch (“Should I do this? Do math professors do this?”). Not having a plan has been harder but I luckily waited until I was old enough to deal with the uncertainty. It’s not unlike the feeling I described in this post about learning to not understand tensor products.

One thing that has surprised me about not having a plan is that you might expect I’d have less interest in learning new things, since learning can be seen as investing in a new long-term plan. But actually, if anything I’ve learned more, more quickly, since giving up plans, because I’ve been following my instincts and curiosity rather than my idea of the what would be appropriate for the person I expect to become. So that’s an advertisement for not having a plan, at least for me.

I hope this rambling answer has helped, RANDOMLY!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt P,

What’s the difference between a hipster and a nerd? Aren’t they both purported minorities with fringe obsessional interests? One of them is sexy while the other is only ironically sexy. But which is it?


Dear Nerdster,

I have never compared the two groups until now, but I’d argue that hipsters are generally hyper aware of what’s “normal” and act in constant reference to that, whereas nerds are oblivious to what’s normal, or at least ignore it because they’ve got more interesting things to think about. That’s a big difference.

Personally I find almost everything sexy, but if I had to decide between nerds and hipsters, I’d go with nerds. Here’s why: if you think about it, nerds in groups commonly invent their own universes (think “Star Trek”), which light the way to aspirational societies, which are very sexy. Even the singularity stuff is exciting in that kind of nerd nirvana way.

Whereas if you take the hipster to the asymptotic limit of his philosophical mindset, you get artisanal pencil sharpening.

I am completely willing to believe my vision is biased because I’m a nerd, by the way. Hipsters, please speak up for your peeps and correct me if I’m wrong about your sexiness.




Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a queer gal and last year for about 5 months, I worked with an amazing woman and we got really close. We connected so well, unlike anyone I’ve met before. She’s married (to a guy) with kids, and I have a gf of 8 years, so nothing happened between us, but the possibility was there.

I’m in a new location (unrelated circumstances), and tried reconnecting with her via email but she never responded, so obviously I get the message. Trouble is, I can’t get her out of my head a year later. And the kicker is I’m doing a presentation at the old location in a few months. I want to see her and maybe I’ll get over this serious crush. Also, there are others I want to reconnect with, so I want to send out an email letting them know I’ll be back for a day. Questions: 1. Is including her in the email stupid? 2. How do I stop thinking about her?

Gal Apparently Yearning

Dear GAY,

First, thanks for the great fake name, it brings tears to my eyes that you guys are on top of this shit.

Next, let’s do this in cases. Best case scenario she’s in love with you but can’t handle it because she’s got kids and doesn’t want to fuck up her family. In that case your plan has to be super sexy but also protective of her life, so in other words send her a brief email that you’ll be back and, if she dares to see you, spend the whole time holding her hand, looking into her eyes, and talking about how beautiful she is and how you know she can’t jeopardize her family but you love her anyway. That makes a great story and it’s true.

Worst case scenario she doesn’t acknowledge even to herself that she’s in love with you. In that case same plan since you’ll never know which it is unless you try.

Good luck!! Tell me what happens!

Aunt Pythia


Please please please submit questions, thanks!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Robert Jennings
    February 16, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Questions for Mathbabe


    Derivative “Daring explorer re-evaluating imagined virtues and trying (to) investigate vital employment”

    I am a former structured finance guy (20+ years doing cross border leasing, tax deals, synthetic leases, etc) who finally quit and I’ve been doing not-for-profit financial development – Yes – not an oxymoron – financial products designed to change the world for the better.

    This has been fascinating but crazy difficult, in multiple dimensions. Communities that resist change even though the status quo sucks, foundations that like to talk about innovation (but it actually scares them) , and a huge amount of inertia, all the issues that crop up around change but nonetheless get old after 4 years.

    The problem – no income, huge effort, not much reward – psychic or otherwise. My wife has been more than supportive but it is getting near time to either:
    1) Find a job back in my old world (which is also likely to be a low probability, high pain – job hunt) and deeply ugly for my soul (the unleveraged part)
    2) Continue hunting for a not-for-profit that is interested in finance (not as in “free money” but finance as in “How do we alter the risk calculus faced by the bottom half of our society”) but so far this hunt has been fruitless
    3) Not sure – old barista guy ?

    So, Pythia – advice ?


  2. February 16, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    I think you’re phenomenal!

    Thank you.


  3. BK
    February 16, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    I’d take hipster music over nerd music any day. Following your definitions, nerd music invents things that make mathematical sense but are not seeking to connect to reality—think Schönberg’s 12-tone system, or anything by anybody who mistook _Gödel, Escher, Bach_ for a music theory textbook.

    Meanwhile, Hipster music is well aware of what plays on the radio and makes a (self-)conscious effort to transform it into something more interesting. What if we add a full oom-pah horn section (e.g., Beirut), or what if we mix atonal skronk with Samba (like Arto Lindsay) or Spanish-influenced guitar (like Mice Parade), or what if we write lyrics that aren’t braindead ilubyoo crap (like any of them). One can argue that it is in practice impossible to ignore what is currently the norm, so the definition of hipster music is really the best we could ask of art.


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