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Aunt Pythia’s advice

October 12, 2013

Hello and good morning, dear Aunt Pythia readers. Aunt Pythia is feeling bright-eyed and bushy tailed this morning and can’t wait to dig into the juicy questions and ethical dilemmas she is sure are awaiting her in her beloved and glamorous google spreadsheet.

Aunt Pythia has taken a few minutes today already to count her blessings, and high among them are the chance to interact with you kind people through this blog and particularly this Saturday morning column. Thank you all! Please feel generous for being here, you are appreciated!

And as always please:

ask a question at the bottom of the page!!

By the way, if you want more, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Auntie,

1. Do body parts that are not for public purview (read “genitals”) show greater physical diversity because they have not been acted upon by marketing and evolution?

2. Does the use of wigs by Orthodox Jewish women lead to baldness, as they don’t have to demonstrate good hair and so theirs is kind of …meh? I have two data points; albeit from the same family.

No disrespect to genitals or Orthodox Jews intended.

Sexual Evolution Xpounded

Dear SEX,

First of all, I’m in a new phase where I am really into using the phrase “particulars”. So I’m really glad you asked this question, since it gives me tremendous opportunity in that regard. I’m no expert in particulars, of course, but I’ll talk about particulars anyway, since you asked.

First, let’s think about whether particulars have escaped evolution untouched: for sure not, but it has presumably been more about procreation probabilities and not dying in childbirth than about beauty per se.

Here’s my argument along those lines, specifically when it comes to women’s particulars and the issue of marketing standardization: my impression is that no man has ever gotten that close to sex and then said, “whoa, your vagina has a slightly peculiar shape and/or positioning relative to your clitoris. Maybe we should not procreate after all!!”

I mean, it may have happened but I haven’t heard about it. Tell me if you have evidence to the contrary.

That’s not to say there’s no beauty there in something that is varied and idiosyncratic, to be sure. And things might be slightly different for men in this regard, since let’s face it, men’s particular particulars are more obvious pieces of apparatus and therefore more easily scrutinized.

As for baldness and wigs: no freaking clue, but I do have something to say about wigs in general, which is that there are a TON of wigs out there if you know how to spot them. In fact if you go onto the NY subway and take a look around, you’ll see that a good portion of rush hour commuting women are wearing wigs, and I don’t think it’s because New Yorkers are more likely to be bald. It’s just a big thing, particularly for Jewish and for African-American women. Bigger than you might think, and essentially never discussed, which always piques my interest.

Hope that helps,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Here is my Career dilemma. I am what you would consider an “Engineer” in the Analytics industry. I have had a good career in building Analytics Products aimed at analyzing data and finally implementing some ‘algorithms’ after enough study to take the human out of the process (one example is a routing algorithm that considers 10-15 price, quality and other factors).

Lately, I feel less excited about ‘normal’ analytics projects (because initial study is smaller and rest is all about creating pipelines to setup algorithms to work autonomously). Instead the new ‘Data Science’ field seems more interesting, fun and challenging. I had a good math background, but that was a decade ago…ideally, I would be part of a Data Science team and learn in the process, but as soon as I say I am not a math major, nobody takes me seriously.

I am relearning some of my math skills but I can hardly refresh years of algebra, calculus and operations research skills that easily.

I am NOT dreaming of being the math nerd in a Data Science team but I cannot figure out if Data Science teams need people like me, who have years of Decision Science + Data Processing background. Yes building 1 model does not make someone a Data Scientist, on the other hand writing a couple of python mapreduce jobs or a few SQL queries does not make someone a Data Architect either.

I apply for jobs, get no response and get frustrated and stop looking…and then repeat that after few weeks. I am almost at the point of giving up and going back to Analytics + Data Architecture field. Do you think Data Science teams would welcome people who have more traditional Data background?

Confused about Career Options

Dear Confused,

A couple of things. First, my new book with Rachel Schutt is coming out in a week and a half and is ideal for someone like you. Get it, read it, and build a few of the things discussed in it with publicly available data so you have a portfolio of projects.

Next, it’s hard to get hired as a data science person with your background, even with projects under your belt. So try to get a job as an engineer in a data-driven business, and worm your way into the data group. Tell them that is your intention, and that you are willing to prove your mad data skillz. I’d be surprised if someone didn’t pick you up under such conditions.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

I have, belatedly, come in contact with the “Youth Sports Industrial Complex” and the insane, existential battle parents wage for their children’s future through travel soccer and the like.

Literally, people seem to think that their kid will get into Harvard on the strength of their parents’ SERIOUS COMMITMENT to youth sports. Winning at all costs seems to be the one and only goal.

The thing is, my kid could be very competitive at this particular sport – if we were to join one of the competitive clubs and hand our souls over to the dark side. I don’t expect to get a scholarship or something, frankly that’s nuts.

Am I a looney for suggesting to my kids that playing well and having fun – and exhibiting excellent sportsmanship – are the goal if they never seem to beat the hyper-aggressive kids? Am I setting them up for a life as outcasts if we reject this ethos? As a mom, what do you think?

Maximize, Or Maintain?

Dear MOM,

What a fucking great question, thank you for asking it.

As a mom, I am definitely on the radical fringe when it comes to this. Specifically, I have taken my kids out of all grown-up organized activities, mostly at their request (but secretly because I think that shit is nuts). That means no sports, no nothing (they do student-organized stuff sometimes). They are expected to exercise but they get to choose how, and they are expected to do interesting stuff – so not play video games after school – but it’s up to them what to do.

Because for my family, it’s not just offensive to think that “winning is the goal” at all times. It’s even offensive to think that adults should define the goal for growing children in their free time.

[Rant to those people: What’s wrong with you people, isn’t it enough that these kids will probably have to live by other people’s rules when they’re working in jobs later? Why do we have to start that crap so soon?]

This stance makes it easy for me to never have to deal with the question you’re currently dealing with, namely having a kid who likes a team sport and is good at it, and how to think about the rest of the lunatics. My kids, to be clear, hate team sports and suck at them, like good nerds.

My advice is to be consistently sane and give them absolute agency on these decisions. Be utterly honest about what you think of the attitude displayed by the other kids, and ask your kid what they want considering the dire conditions. They might want to do it anyway, and they will definitely benefit from having a sane person to look to when emotions and goals get distorted and out of hand. Most importantly, if they decide to quit the team, let them.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

With an electrical engineering background but no research experience, I want to study mathematics. I am quite certain that I want to be in research. Without an undergraduate background in mathematics (though I’ve take few applied mathematics courses), what’s the best way to move forward? I don’t know what exactly would end up being the outcome – I would like it to be either in cognitive sciences or mathematical physics/geology. It’s rather broad, because I can’t tell unless I know more. Should I take a year out and preparing for something, get another bachelors (which I dread, I don’t want to do the 4 year university) or …?


Dear Slowkill,

Pardon me for saying it, but WTF?? How would you know you want to do math research if you don’t have experience in math? That makes no sense, because it means you want to devote yourself to something you don’t understand at all and have no experience in. It really has nothing to do with math at all, unless you are assuming that stories you heard about living the math life are true. An I’m here to tell you, they’re not. If Good Will Hunting were to be believed, all math professors have personal secretaries scurrying around getting them coffee – NOT!!

My advice is to think about what it is you really want to do – or to escape. I’m sensing more escapism than desire in your words. Go see Gravity, it’s supposed to be awesome and totally escapist.

Good luck,

Auntie P


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. NY
    October 12, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Cathy – Aunt Pythia I mean – reading your response to the sports question really makes me wish I lived in your household growing up. Childhood would’ve been much more enjoyable without all the pressure to get into med school (which began in 8th grade by the way!), which I didn’t end up applying for anyway. The goal-oriented mentality really sapped the fun out of everything. And now that I’m working, your completely justified rant: “What’s wrong with you people, isn’t it enough that these kids will probably have to live by other people’s rules when they’re working in jobs later? Why do we have to start that crap so soon?” really struck a chord.

    Also, can’t wait for your book to come out!


  2. JSE
    October 12, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    For what it’s worth, Cathy, I was ambivalent about signing my son up for Little League for exactly this kind of reason (OK, and that I didn’t want to drive out to the Beltline twice a week) but it’s been a tremendous success; he loves it and I love it. I think there’s huge variation and everything depends on the sport, the team, the parents, and the coach. There is an intermediate range where you CARE whether you win but it’s not a BIG DEAL whether you win, and I think when everybody’s on board with approaching it that way, it can be great; at least that’s how I’ve found it.


  3. jmhl
    October 12, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Cathy, I don’t think much of your advice to Slowkill. Studying EE as s/he has done involved a large amount of math, and s/he says s/he has done applied math courses, which is also mathematics. So Slowkill has studied math, and it sounds like s/he found it enjoyable and wants to move in that direction. Saying that s/he has no experience in math is unfair. You don’t have to be a pure math major to have experience in mathematics.

    Slowkill, I hope you’re reading: of the areas you say you’re interested in, mathematical physics is an enormous field, and runs the gamut from the pure math end (groups and things) to the applied (differential equations, fluid dynamics, dynamical systems, etc). Mathematical geology is certainly an established field, and mathematics in the cognitive sciences is a growing field too.

    I’d venture a guess that you’re a budding applied mathematician, Slowkill. It’s not at all unheard of for people to move from an EE undergrad to graduate work in applied mathematics. I say, talk to everyone you can about what is available. I can’t imagine that getting another bachelor’s degree would be necessary if you got good grades in EE. Be aware that applied mathematics sometimes gets grouped into the wrong department, particularly in US universities: sometimes it’s grouped into engineering science or physics, or the mathematicians in, say, medical research or earth sciences have to find their own corner of those departments rather than getting to collaborate across disciplines with their mathematical peers. Universities in Europe and elsewhere are more likely to treat applied mathematics as a discipline in its own right.


    • October 12, 2013 at 2:18 pm

      Yeah, I don’t think my advice was all that good either, or at least my explanation wasn’t.

      But here’s the thing I didn’t hear slowkill say: that they love math and want to do it. Because if they did love math, they’d see going back to school for 4 years as a way of doing math. I mean, I basically didn’t do anything else in college, and then I went to grad school for 5 more years and did literally nothing else, and then finally I was ready (not really) to do math research. The idea that you could jump straight there without “going to school” in it just sounds weird to me, and not consistent with someone who actually wants to do it.

      In other words, I stand by my original observation that slowkill doesn’t really want to do it. But I think my explanation for why I thought so needed work.

      Slowkill, if you’re still listening, and if you really do want to do math research, then my advice is to go back to school, whatever school and however you can, and do all math for a whole bunch of time and enjoy the hell out of it, because it’s math and math is awesome.


      • quasihumanist
        October 12, 2013 at 9:41 pm

        Does one need to have several years of undergrad and grad school to do truly groundbreaking and interesting research? Perhaps. But there are plenty of small open problems of moderate interest doesn’t require that much background. There are many interesting little combinatorics or metric geometry problems that even a smart high school student can work on with a reasonable chance of solving. Likewise, there are many mathematical modelling problems which don’t require more than a course in differential equations and some knowledge of the application area. You will probably only come out with a partial solution or a bad solution or even no solution at all. That’s fine; the result is not the point here; the experience is.

        Find a professor somewhere who has such a problem to suggest. (Hint: You are more likely to find them outside of the high-powered research places where people are at the forefront of research requiring many years of background.) Try it out for a few weeks. That will give you a better idea of whether you like mathematical research or not before spending years on school.


  4. David
    October 12, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Cathy, I like aunt Pythia but have to object to the phrase “hate team sports team and suck at them, like good nerds”, not just because it suggest that I am not a good nerd… 🙂

    It may not be the case for the teams you and your reader mention but sports, perhaps, especially team sports, can be a very good for thing for kids and adults including nerds. You learn not to give up, to lose/humility, to work others and you do something for your health…


    • October 12, 2013 at 2:19 pm

      David, don’t worry, you’re still a total nerd, even though you like team sports.


  5. October 12, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Dear Aunt Pythia, although my kid is just short of two, and so a few years off from the weirdness of compete-or-die kids sports, I’m totally in solidarity with your answer to MOM: what is it with these people who want to embroil their kids in all of the worst bits of working life (drudgery, arbitrary rules, exhaustion) before absolutely necessary? And although David above may be right – it probably is possible to learn to persevere and cooperate via team sports – it’s also possible to learn those things without having over-invested adults shouting at you.


    • JSE
      October 13, 2013 at 10:11 am

      I hope what my son learns from sports is that “practicing things to get good at them” is not the same thing as “drudgery,” that “arbitrary rules,” like the forms of politeness, are present in every aspect of life, and that “exhaustion,” when it comes from a day spent outside running around, is pretty enjoyable.


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