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Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 14, 2013

You know what’s awesome? I’ll tell you what’s awesome.

What’s awesome is waking up on Saturday and knowing it’s time to crack open the Aunt Pythia Google Doc and see what juicy ethical dilemmas there are to ponder. I live for this stuff, peoples! Thank you for offering your most intimate conundrums for me to rip open and expose to the world! I do appreciate it.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.

But most importantly, Submit your question for Aunt Pythia at the bottom of this page!

Dear Auntie Py,

I keep thinking of starting my own blog about my favorite ten things: data, small tricks, visualization, things that fly, you know … But I am so immersed in the 10+ great blogs out there (mathbabe to mention one), that I keep consuming and enjoying, and never get around to sitting down and producing.

What do you think is a healthy balance of reading what awesome people have to say and trying to add one’s own two cents out there? Is it ever possible to do both seriously and thoroughly?

It would be most helpful, if you could also extend your wisdom to academic publications.

May your readers grow exponentially.

Be Your Own True CHaracter


Confession: I don’t regularly read anyone else’s blog. I spend quite a bit of time on Naked Capitalism, and I have historically spent quite a bit of time on Dealbreaker, although now that Matt Levine has moved to Bloomberg I am enjoying him there.

I also regularly check out a bunch of blogs, including my friend Jordan’s blog Quomodocumque, even though it’s impossible to spell. But let’s put it this way: I wasn’t aware of the moment that Google Reader disappeared, because I don’t need a reader for the kind of reading I do.

Not that I don’t read. I do read, a lot, and one way I do is I follow people on Twitter who use it like I do, mainly to post interesting links. That way I get to read all sorts of things from all sorts of sources. Also, I enjoy getting links from my readers and friends through email or chat.

So I guess my answer is, it’s just as important to diversify your reading than it is to balance reading and writing. As for writing, go here for more advice.

As for the seriously/ thoughtfully thing: don’t try too hard. In fact, the key is to have exactly one idea and write about it. If you try to have more than one idea it will be too long, too complicated, or both.

Finally, as for the academic writing: same answer. I think I wrote as many papers as I read, which is to say I didn’t read all that many papers. I mostly learned math through talking to people directly about their work and through going to talks, and early on through classes and homework. But that’s a personality thing, everyone’s different.

Good luck!

Aunt Py


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Somewhere along the line I thankfully transitioned away from seeking advice. I no longer feel any need whatsoever to seek advice on anything major, ever, as the data is now in: nobody is better at advising me than myself.

In fact I would take this a level further by declaring that any compulsion to seek advice itself represents a bigger problem than whatever one might feel the need to be asking for advice about!

My fence position on giving advice is commensurate with the above, but hey, if it makes for juicy reading, why not! 🙂

Loopy Not

Dear Loopy,

Putting aside the fact that you filled out an advice form to object to the concept of advice giving, I totally agree with you. I’d put it another way though. Often, when people think they have a question about topic A, in asking it they expose that they have a much greater need to be advised on topic B, and topic B is usually something like “how do I make important life decisions?”.

Put it another way. Religious readers of Aunt Pythia may have noticed that she consistently offers advice akin to “think for yourself!” at the rate of every second week or so. You might imagine that this means Aunt Pythia wishes her job weren’t giving advice at all, but that is false. In fact, Aunt Pythia loves her job, and wants to help people, but she often considers the best way to help is to answer the question that nobody thought to ask.

So if someone’s asking a question that they should answer themselves (“should I marry this woman that I love dearly even though so-and-so doesn’t think it will work out?”) the answer isn’t directed at the question, the answer is directed at the question of what it means to have free will.

That’s a more important and universal question anyway, and moreover talking it over in a nurturing and thoughtful environment is not a useless exercise: people have been known to emerge courageous and determined from such conversations, and they go forth boldly and make the decisions they already should have been making.

Finally, to address your defiant position on advice-giving. Putting aside the fact that you’ve given me advice on never giving advice, I will defend my occupation thus: some people get something from advice, other people ignore it. Feel free to ignore it.


Aunt Pythia


Hi Babe,

I am a junior faculty in a university you know. Last semester I had an undergrad in my class who had (and still has) a crush on me. The feeling is mutual, but she chose to take another course with me, so our flirtation has gone nowhere. I am afraid that she will ask to supervise her senior thesis, which I could but don’t want to do. Instead, I want to pursue a relationship with her. Should I take her to coffee and explain my predicament?

Sad in Downtown

Dear Sad,

Hands off, buddy. You don’t know what kind of crush she has one you – it could very well be an intellectual crush, and she could be taking another course with the reasonable expectation of writing a senior thesis with you. In other words, she’s investing her time and scholarly energy into this relationship, and it’s simply not fair to her academic career for you to throw that all away because you want to get into her pants.

Think about it this way. Let’s say some man took two classes from you, and say you went out to coffee with that man to tell him you can’t do a senior thesis with him but you’d love to be his basketball buddy.

Would that be reasonable? No, it wouldn’t. And that’s the smell test here. You can’t derail her intellectual investment just because she happens to be attractive.

As for the flirting, it’s possible she does have a crush on you, but it’s also possible that she’s just psyched to get attention from a professor, and the power differential makes her willing to take that attention in any form she can. So don’t get too high on it, it’s called power.

My advice: don’t make a move on her, be her advisor, and be her advocate. If it’s meant to be then she’ll come to your office someday after she graduates, when she’s no longer at your mercy, and she’ll tell you she’s interested as one adult talks to another. But even then it’s gotta come from her.

Finally, you might want to reread the papers you signed when you took this job. They’re not window dressing.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Today, I had a substitute teacher in my linear algebra class. As he walked in, it was as if Gandalf had appeared to lead his hobbits to their destinies. Grey bearded, tall, hunched, and with an almost accusing nose as he peered out expectantly, he wielded those matrices with the ease of someone who had defeated vectors from as far away as Eigen to the East and series from Fourier to the South. As much as he was intimidating he was also reassuring in his insistence that not only could we understand the material, but that our quest was a righteous one. My question is, as a math major soon to graduate (hopefully) without any specific plans, where is my ring to toss in Mount Doom?

Love your posts!

Looking for Mount Doom

Dear Looking for Mount Doom,

You know how, when you’re an uber nerd from an uber nerd family, all those nerdy books and movies kind of make no sense to you because you’ve seen them since you were 4 and you just weren’t capable of deconstructing stuff and interpreting stuff when you were 4?

Well, your question has forced me to think about the meaning of the ring, and of Mount Doom, and who Gandalf was, and who Frodo was, and try to understand the extent to which we are all Frodos, and we each have our own ring to throw into our personal Mount Dooms, and I gotta tell you, I got nothing.

However, if I might shift the frame just a wee bit, and suggest that your linear algebra sub was probably actually Obi Wan Kenobi, not Gandalf, then this one’s easy: go find yourself a Yoda (thesis advisor) and learn how to use the force (of mathematics). And remember: there is no try, only do.

Good luck,

Auntie P


Before I end today’s column, I’ve got something to share with you, but only if you’re ready for it.

If you’re in a spicy mood on this Saturday morning, please check out a new advice blog my anonymous friend sent me. It’s called Never Sleep Alone, and it contains lots of wisdom about sex and dating, albeit couched in a ridiculously macho, possibly satirical (but possibly not) framework, especially in this post entitled Why You Suck And What To Do About It.

In other words, the advice is good, not all the assumptions are.


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

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