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Ask Aunt Pythia

August 10, 2013

Hey it’s Saturday and unlike last week, I know it! That means it’s time for Aunt Pythia to spew forth her ill-considered advice to thoroughly nice people such as yourself.

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

And please, Submit your question for Aunt Pythia at the bottom of this page!


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a 48-year-old newly single mother of teenagers. I finally have time to date and am seeking the statistically most successful way to meet single, available men. I do not like to hang out in bars and my “sports” interests are ballet and yoga–not anywhere any heterosexual men usually hang out. I do love wine but joining a wine “club” would be prohibitively expensive, and a book club is also not where available men can be found. Do you suggest I take up new activities in my life to meet men? And if so, which ones would maximize my chances in my age group and my proclivity to be introverted? Please do not suggest match.com–it was a disaster.

Statistically Seeking Mr. Right

Dear SSMR,

I suggest you take up a nerd sport, like learning a programming language – python?. Join a python meetup group in your area and go to some meetings and wait for a super nice nerd to show up. Note: super nice nerds might not talk a lot, so you might need to be patient and/or draw them out.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m an incoming senior undergrad CS student at Columbia.

This summer, I’m very fortunate to be working on some very interesting problems in data science, learning a ton, and implementing and testing a lot of models of my own. It’s more research/science type stuff, rather than software engineering, and I really want to continue to do this (while being compensated) after graduation next year.

The problem is, I’ve never once considered grad school (I’m really not an academic type and I love working with real data in real companies). Is it possible for a new graduate to get a research-type data science job, or at least mostly research-type, without a further degree? More importantly, I’d like to work on interesting problems, that hopefully will benefit the greater good, at least in some way.

If so, where do these jobs lie, and how can I get there?

Fledgling Scientist

Dear Fledgling Scientist,

It’s interesting how, at least for you, there’s a disconnect between the desire to be doing abstract research and the desire to be at grad school. What does that say about the reputation of grad school? What does it symbolize to you if not doing abstract research? Would you reconsider that?

Here’s the thing. I’ma be honest with you, most research doesn’t pay for itself. Indeed it’s pretty rare for research to pay off. So companies, especially start-ups that don’t have extra money floating around, will not pay for people to be abstract researchers, even if they’re proven professionals (i.e. they have Ph.D.’s and lots of papers).

Even in my job, where I’m an experienced researcher in math, and to some extent it’s my job to be a researcher in data science, it’s not abstract at all – I’m trying to figure out how to start a business in data science that will create a revenue stream of real cash money.

I don’t want to be completely negative, so here’s an idea for you that doesn’t require grad school. Get a job that pays pretty well but isn’t full time and do research in your spare time. It might not pay off cash-wise but it could very well make you money. And after a while you might decide that getting a Ph.D. would suit you.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

First of all: happy belated birthday!

In a couple of weeks I’m going to be taking part in a really awesome program at my university that brings low-income/first-generation college students to campus for a week to work on a research project with a lab of their choice before starting here in the fall. I get to be their Resident Assistant during this time and help them out with their lab projects/presentations. I’m feeling incredibly excited but also incredibly nervous about staring this! For example, I keep having imaginary conversations with hypothetical students in one or another life-situation with the aim of trying to figure out what’s the best possible advice/consolation I could offer them in that theoretical moment (this is just symptomatic of how math has drilled my brain to think about everything. I’m not actually crazy).

But whenever I overanalyze something to this extent I tend to become aloof and disconnected from the reality of it when it actually happens. It’s really important to me that I DO NOT DO THIS because I would love to be able to keep interacting regularly with these kids once the program finishes and I don’t want them to think of me as that weird guy who shakes his gravelly hands and mumbles whenever they bring up an academic/personal problem that I might *actually* be able to help them with (given on my own crazy and nonlinear experience). So how can I avoid doing this? How can I keep it real? Any other nuggets of wisdom you’d like to offer me going into this would also be greatly appreciated!

Derp dErp deRp derP

Dear Dddd,

Thanks for the birthday wishes! I had a great one.

Let’s see. Your job is to help kids with research projects, and you want to do a good job and keep it real, and you want to keep in touch with them. They’re also low-income/ first-generation college students.

My first piece of advice is to be nice and to articulate very loudly that you’re here to help and you want to make yourself available to them. That is always appreciated by people who don’t know what they’re doing. My next suggestion is to assume they are nerds, here to learn, and want to be challenged as well as to impress. So get ready to be impressed, and be sure to give positive feedback when it’s appropriate. People really love that stuff.

Third, you mention you have had a crazy and non-linear experience yourself. It might help them to know that, to relate to you, because chances are they might have moments of feeling out of place. But I’d wait on telling them until it’s one-on-one and you’ve already established a friendship and mutual respect. For example, it’d be a good time to mention this if they’ve come to you in a panic because they’ve been feeling over their head but know they can rely on you for advice. And also for example, it’d be a bad time to mention this on the first day when they’re all just meeting you, because it’d come across as you not expecting much from them.

Finally, it’s always fun to work with young people, so have a great time! Feed off their energy and they’ll feed off of your wisdom.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I recently finished up a masters in applied mathematics. I also recently left the Air Force to stop being a part of an organization that does awful awful things. I am now trying to find a job that hopefully uses my recent degree and avoids working for an organization that does awful things. Currently this means I am teaching small children to ice skate and play hockey which is great but doesn’t quite fill up the day or have much of any direct connection to math.

I am wondering what I could do and where I could look to avoid being chewed up by the military-industrial complex or other such entity? (see: financial sector) I’ve been looking at teaching jobs and been avoiding the thought of going for a PhD (so far, that bug will bite soon I’m sure), but I wondered if there might be other options I haven’t thought of. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Will Math to Feed Book Habit

Dear Will,


The truth is, once you’ve been politicized and sensitized to the evil that organizations do or are involved it, you start to see it everywhere. Or if not everywhere, at least most places where you get paid.

So if you’re dead-set on not being part of that stuff at all, your options are limited. For example, working at Google might not be a good idea for you since we don’t really know what they do. Facebook is pretty much a no fly zone, depending on what it is you have objections to. Start-ups often participate in weird shit in ways they don’t want to acknowledge (and sometimes don’t – you should be on the look-out for a good job at a small start-up in any case).

Here’s my suggestion: do math tutoring. I know people who get paid pretty darn well for math tutoring, especially for wealthy kids. And yes, there are issues around that too, of course, but on the other hand you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, and you’re pretty much independent. Plus you’ve already shown you can work with kids, so it might be an easy transition. Over time you can start a math tutoring company and run it with no ties to anyone you don’t like.

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I was in Penn Station today around 6pm and a guy came up to me and asked me if he could ask me a question. I said okay, and well he first asked me if I spoke English, and then he said he needed money to take the train to Patchogue (which I later looked up costs $12.75). I wasn’t sure what to do, and I just reflexively I guess asked him how much it the fare was and he said 11.75 and well, then I took out my wallet and had 12 bucks so I gave it to him and he thanked me and walked away (I had to catch my own train elsewhere and so I don’t know whether he bought a ticket to patchogue or not).

After he walked away, I felt a bit silly for giving him so much – I could have just said no, but I often have a hard time saying no – and felt like I hadn’t stood up for myself, and had given him the money so that he would go away (I felt threatened/intimated by him because of reasons that aren’t PC to mention; but there were plenty of people around so I didn’t consider myself to be in imminent danger).

At the same time, I tried to make myself feel better by reminding myself that I can’t take any money with me when I die, and that I expect to die with more than 12 bucks in my name, so in the end it doesn’t matter, and maybe he was having a rough time so I perhaps I did my good deed for the day.

On the other hand, giving money away like that just encourages people/panhandlers to ask, maybe it is a scam (btw this would be the second time within the last year I was asked in Penn Station such a question (I said no the previous time but it was a lady that was asking so I didn’t feel threatened), and I’m only in there about once a week) and so sometimes I say no to such requests.

So my question is, what would AP do? (Oh, if it matters, I make $70,000 a year, and have no dependents). And what does MB do when asked by panhandlers for spare change?

Penn $tation

Dear Penn,

First of all, I like that you gave the dude $12 – I’ve been scammed before – plus, I like your “death bed” reasoning as well, it makes sense to me. I don’t think you need to feel weird or ashamed of what you’ve done.

On the other hand, it’s not what I do. I never give scary men money because they’re threatening me, whether they’re black or white, on principle, and I’ve never had a problem with saying no. In fact I almost never give money to strangers at all, except when they’re older women who seem like they’ve been thrown out of mental institutions. Then I often give them $20 bills, and they’re often not even asking for them because they’re so confused.

Since I live and work in New York and commute to work via subway most days, giving money to everyone who asks me for it could actually be bad for my family over time. But that’s not why I don’t do it. Mostly I don’t do it because, having worked in soup kitchens and having read enough about childhood poverty and hunger, I know that the people who need petty cash the most aren’t the ones asking for it in Penn Station. It’s way bigger than that, unfortunately.

I do buy my broke friends stuff, mostly food, and I give money to causes like Fair Foods in Boston that I have a personal connection to and which I think address the immediate needs of poor immigrants and children.


Aunt Pythia


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Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. JMS
    August 11, 2013 at 4:01 am

    Come on — do you really think any self-respecting python nerd would go to a python meetup group, when every possible information can be safely found on the web, without the risk inherent in a human interaction? The best one could hope to meet at a python meetup group is a half-baked nerd. Sorry.


  2. Nadia Hassan
    August 12, 2013 at 2:33 am

    Happy belated birthday, Cathy! I am in my 20s, and I just had a birthday and felt sad about it, because it felt like so much life had just gone by so fast. But, life expectancy calculators informed me that 60% of my life is yet to come, and it would suck to think that birthdays from now on are unenjoyable. Glad you had a great one because you deserve it, but it also gives hope to those of us who are starting to get frustrated about life, aging, etc.


  1. August 17, 2013 at 7:47 am
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