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Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 21, 2013

Peoples! Peoples!

I counted the new Aunt Pythia questions for this week and guess what number I got to?

ZERO! I have ZERO new questions this week!

Now luckily I had a few extra questions stored away so we’re good today, but you know just as well as I that this cannot go on.

Let me say it like this. Either you guys cough up some juicy sex dilemmas or Aunt Pythia goes back to the hospital. I don’t like to make threats, especially to nice little old ladies like Aunt Pythia (actually she’s not that small), but I’ll do whatever it takes. I’m ruthless.

In other words, enjoy today’s advice, but please: 

don’t forget to ask a question at the bottom!!

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.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My family friends are always asking me suggestions for books/resources to help nurture theirs kids’ interest in mathematics/sciences/engineering. The thing is the only books I could recommend are aimed at the high school level, while usually their kids are still in elementary. Do you have any recommendations?


Perennial educational advice giver in family

Dear Peagif,

My parents did a good job of not turning me off of math by not forcing it down my throat. I’m on that same page, and I never send my kids to math circle or have them read math books or science stuff. But I am always available for a conversation about science or math, and I have a ridiculous number of puzzles lying around the house, at all times.


We also keep well stocked in construction toys like Zome Tools. We also use Zome Tools to make bubbles and we have glow-in-the-dark versions too.



So that’s my advice: nerd toys rock, and they don’t feel pressured.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a postdoc in math and considering making a change to the private sector. I am still very active in research and teaching (in fact I quite like it, but I feel a change is necessary since academia requires too many compromises), and I am learning python on the side. I am not programming anything too hard-core yet; just little projects from free courses I can find online. I have two questions: right now my CV is very academia-oriented. How should I try to augment it to seem desirable in the wider world? Also, will my age become a serious liability the longer I wait (I am in my early thirties)?

Eagerly awaiting your response,
Liking Academia But Really Ambivalent There


Ooooooh, nice name. I got a good feeling about your future just from that alone.

So, two things. First, you’re doing it right, and I don’t think your age is a problem. You will want to supplement your math career and python learning with some actual data problems. Take a look around for a nice data set and try to ask a question that you don’t think anyone’s asked but people might care about. Team up with some other nerds trying to learn data stuff so it’s more fun.

Second, I’d like to hear more about your current “compromises”. As I might have mentioned before, my motto is, “you never get rid of your problems, you just get a new set of problems”.

So if you’re sick of the problems you have as an academic, then fine, leave and become a data scientist. But if you think there are no compromises in data science, then think again. They’re different but they exist.

So here’s an offer: you show me your compromises, and I’ll show you mine.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My tenure-track position is at a university with non-selective admissions, and it is my first experience of such a college or university (from any viewpoint). A few of my students are quite good, and many are reasonably smart and or reasonably hard-working, but overall, my feeling is that, if these people are our future, then we are doomed. And the statistics tell us that students here are still above average among 18-year-olds. I don’t think most of them could ever learn to code, unless you count copying someone else’s code and modifying a line or two to fix the spelling errors in the output as coding.

Am I going to start believing that we have to all go Amish and stop using technology in order to avoid some apocalypse and or dictatorial dystopia? Worse yet, in twenty years, will I be living in a shack in the woods and mailing bombs everywhere in a futile attempt to reverse the advance of technology?

I could try to get a job at a school with more academically capable students, but the job market is tough, and going to a college or university that would just reject less capable students seems to be just burying my head in the sand. Industry and most government jobs are out, not only because it’s also burying my head in the sand, but also because my previous stint in the computer industry sensitized me to the evil that every for profit organization has to do or be involved it just to stay in business.

Depressed by near universal stupidity

Dear Depressed,

It seems to me that you’re conflating two interesting but different issues. First, whether you should get another job, and where might you do that, and second, what it means that the majority of the citizens don’t understand, and perhaps can’t understand, their ambient environment at a technical level.

Let’s start with the second issue, since it’s honestly more interesting.

The real question is, what do you need to understand to make a living nowadays? Let’s face it, nobody feels compelled to really understand how a microwave works except microwave manufacturers and possibly cancer researchers (apologies to anyone who knows how a microwave works who I’ve left out).

It’s not fair, in other words, to expect everyone to understand everything about a society’s technology. For that matter technology has been around a long time, and the hallmark of a really good technology is that most people don’t have to think about it at all. For a non-microwave example, consider the idea that government itself can be seen as a technology – some big black box where money goes in and reasonable laws and order come out. Note I’m simplifying here.

If you buy that reasoning, then the next question is, why would we even want the majority of people to know how to code? Why don’t we leave that to the subpopulation of people working on stuff that needs coding? Coders are the equivalent of microwave manufacturers, albeit much better paid. It would be a huge waste for the entire population to learn that skill, even if they were interested and capable of doing so (although Miss Disruption would not agree).

So, to come back to you, you’re teaching at a school where most of the people who go to your school are not going to be technical. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to do interesting things, of course, even if you don’t know what those interesting things are. And no, I don’t think living like the Amish would be a better option for them. They probably don’t think that what they do is so meaningless that they should replace it with manual labor in the fields.

But you could go ahead and do that yourself, it would solve your job problem, and it would also take you away from many of the people you consider so depressingly stupid.

If you want to get over your concerns, here’s something you could try. First, fully enjoy those students who are interested and good at the things you teach, and second, realize that people can lead super fulfilling and good lives doing nothing whatsoever technical. Indeed Amish people do it all the time, I’m sure, and get pleasure in being good members of the community or whatever floats their Amish boats. Give these young people some credit beyond the narrow question of whether they have this kind of talent and desire, and my guess is you’ll be less depressed.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

A couple of weeks ago, Aunt Pythia first posted a response to a question about a single person who masturbates to satisfy sexual urges, and if porn would help blah blah, and secondly, she responded to some nerds about fornicating in puzzle shops in hopes it might supply kinky role models to nerds everywhere, and in particular, possibly the ‘guy’ who asked the first question.

So, my question has to do with Aunt Pythia determining the sex of a particular poster, as the first thing I thought after reading that post was, “That poor woman needs to get laid!”

Does Aunt Pythia assume that all people who are single and masturbate without porn are guys, or should we be worried that she employs some Acxiom-style data warehousing techniques on her questions submission form?

Future Endeavors Are Remorseless

Dear FEAR,

Aunt Pythia fears (harhar) you have caught her in a lazy assumption, and she thank you for pointing it out. It is true that she assumed that the masturbator was male, and even though her original response to the masturbator was gender-neutral, her later reference to the masturbator was not. Apologies.

In Aunt Pythia’s defense, if it is allowed (and since this is her column, it is): if she had been going strictly by stereotypes, she might have assumed that the masturbator was female, since the masturbator had evidently never tried porn before. Just sayin’.


Aunt Pythia


Quick question, oh Aunt Pythia lovers: should Auntie P establish a twitter account and answer 140-character questions with 140-character words of advice? This was an idea from a twitter follower. I’m considering it but I need feedback. Maybe people asking for advice don’t want to use their twitter account to do it? Or maybe the idea would be Auntie P could first ask and then answer? Ideas welcome.

In the meantime, please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. KC
    September 21, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Concerning the quick question at the end: dince you’re not getting a steady enough supply of questions from readers of this website (often you write that how you’re almost out of questions), why would Twitter be any better in that regard?


  2. suevanhattum
    September 21, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    Dear Aunt Pythia, I fear you may have more expertise in the sex and coding departments than in the good mathy books for kids arena. I agree with you that pushing is worse than futile, and I agree with you that mathy toys may be even better than mathy books, but …

    There are mathy books that don’t feel like pressure, many of them quite delightful. I highly recommend The Cat in Numberland and You Can Count on Monsters for any family. I also think many families would enjoy the stories in The Man Who Counted. I’ve described lots more delightful books here.

    And then there are the toys! I find polydrons much easier to manipulate than Zome tools (though perhaps not so versatille in what they can build). Tangrams. Logic puzzles like Rush Hour and Chocolate Fix. Katamino. Blokus. Ahh…


  3. Emmett
    September 28, 2013 at 10:08 am

    Many good puzzles out there, maybe try a step into the past and revisit Lewis Carroll et al? Quite the pastime it used to be for Victorians.

    Coding for the masses:
    I think large numbers of people never need to learn Python and C.
    That said…
    Even the local kid’s baseball roster is way cumbersome in a spreadsheet.
    And spreadsheets are way cumbersome for most desired operations on the baseball roster.

    Simple scripting and a simple file editor tool would make folks lots smarter and could easily be taught in elementary school. (Swap all the columns for rows and vise versa)

    I wish my generation had taught the difference between a list and a database.
    The number of managers I work with who set up databases based on their initial design in a spreadsheet has poisoned many, many projects.
    The number of same managers who insist the content of said database be exported to them in spreadsheets to work with is disheartening to not only the administrators, but all the users who help populate said spreadsheets.

    Yet the basic conceptual work of transitioning from a 2d matrix (spreadsheet) to multidimensional databases can be taught on a chalkboard. And that is when I usually see light bulbs pop on as this ‘thing’ suddenly starts to look useful as a tool.

    A quick test of corporate complexity level, “Do your managers work a LOT in Excel and second, do they ‘get’ pivot tables?”


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