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Aunt Pythia’s advice

October 19, 2013

Aunt Pythia has a 5-year-old’s birthday party to manage this morning, so she’s going to be more to the point, less philosophical, and overall slightly less fun and sexy than usual, for which she apologizes.

On second thought, they say less is more, so let’s assume it’s just as sexy if not more sexy.

Apology rescinded.

And, please, Aunt Pythia readers: I’ve been plowing through questions faster than I’ve been receiving them, so please

ask me a question at the bottom of the page!

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,

Seeing as Halloween is coming up soon, I was just thinking about what to dress up as (well, looking online at pictures of other people’s ridonculous costumes). In the middle of my search, my brother walked into the room. Thinking that he may be of some help, I asked him what I should dress up as. He answered that I should just go as myself; it’ll be the scariest costume guaranteed.

How should I respond?

Sad Face Pumpkin

Dear SFP,

I think your brother is right, and you should acknowledge that.

Let’s face it, our society is filled with phonies getting up every morning and putting on costumes for work to hide their true inner selves. Being an authentic human being is incredibly intimidating to such people, and they might be terrified when they see you.

Partly this is because it’s just so incredibly rare to see someone be an unqualified human being that the “unknown” aspect is scary, and partly because they’re worried that, if you’re doing it, then they might be expected to do it too. Persevere though, and be brave. It’s worthwhile in spite of such reactions.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Since I had my first baby (a four month old little boy), my mother has starting buying him gifts frequently. Most of these are completely unnecessary, or superfluous, or more expensive than what we need or I would consider affordable.

I don’t want them and it stresses me out because I don’t think my mother can afford them either. She is completely innumerate. In fact, she doesn’t even seem to comprehend large numbers at all. 100 and 1000 and 10000 all mean the same thing to her.

Instead of budgeting with numbers, she tries to balance out a sense of deprivation (so she’ll try to balance out spending $100 on luxuries by buying cheap bread that tastes bad for a month, even though that doesn’t work at all).

Even though she is in her sixties, she constantly has a credit card debt, has kept the same mortgage for the last twenty years, and has minimal retirement savings. I wish she would stop buying us baby clothes from expensive department stores and save it instead. I’ve tried returning them and giving her the money back, and asking her not to buy any more, but often I can only get store credit. In any case she won’t take the money back, and then a few weeks later she’ll come over with a new set of clothes that are already almost too small for him.

Sometimes I lie awake at night stressing about it. I feel powerless to stop her but when she gets too old to work I think it will become my problem as well and I unfortunately don’t earn very much money. What should I do?


Dear Anxious,

It’s a huge problem, and your mom is obviously not the only person in that situation. In fact I expect to hear more and more about retirees in huge debt problems in the next few years. Of course some retirees have saved a bunch of money, but not all of them to be sure.

My advice, and this is just on first reflection and I’d invite other readers to give their input, is to stay far away from your mom’s money, legally speaking. She is likely not going to accept your advice, and although it’s probably worth suggesting she go to talk to a non-profit community finance class on budgeting like at a local credit union, I don’t expect this will actually make her instantaneously frugal.

Here’s what I wouldn’t do if I were you: pay off her debts. There would just be more where those came from. When she is unable to pay her debts, by all means help her connect with a lawyer to declare bankruptcy, and help her cope with debt collectors (read the Debt Resistors Operations Manual to learn more about her rights and theirs).

Here’s another thing I wouldn’t do: in any way shape or form become a co-signatory on anything with her. Then you will be liable for her debts.

In the best of worlds, your mom will run up pretty big debts, the credit card companies will figure out she’s never going to pay back those debts, she will declare bankruptcy, and then nobody will give her any more credit. To be sure you will want to make sure she always has food and a place to live and medicine, but think of that as a separate issue from her piling-up debts, which is in the end the problem of the banks that gave her credit cards she couldn’t be trusted with.

Good luck, and enjoy motherhood!

Aunt Pythia


Hi Auntie P,

Thank you for answering my “sock” question, but my apologies for not phrasing it properly, and so misleading you as to my intention. Perhaps you will permit me to resubmit it, and – having seen your “not enough sex” comment on 21st – I will try to put some of that into it, instead of boring old socks. 

Let’s imagine that 44 men and 116 women sign up for a dating evening. Each is given a number, and they are drawn at random – the organizer forgetting to ask any basic questions like “sexual orientation?” or to put the men’s numbers in one pot and the women’s in another. As the numbers are drawn out, the first person is paired with the second, the third with the fourth, etc.

So my question is this: how many M/M pairings will there be? Alternatively, what are the chances of getting exactly n such couples?

Socks Maniac

Dear Socks Maniac,

I don’t usually do this, but I’m gonna steal a commenter’s answer whole hog from that post, which I guess you didn’t see. This is from Michael Kleber, whom I’ve know approximately 20 years, and I’ve adjusted it to be sexy like I know we want it:

I think Socks Maniac’s drawer contains lots of individual socks people which get paired up blindfolded. That gives you X all-black male pairs, Y all-white female pairs, and Z mixed black-white male-female ones, and the question is the probability that X is exactly 10.

This can also be answered by counting, but it’s a little uglier. There are 160-choose-44 orders in which you can pull the socks out of the drawer blindfolded people out of the dungeon, of course. To count the number of ways to get exactly X/Y/Z black/white/male/female/mixed pairs, you can think of lining up 80 slots dungeon lairs and picking X of them to get two black socks blindfolded men, Y of the remaining 80-X to get two white ones blindfolded women — and then for the remaining Z slots dungeon lairs you need to pick whether a black or a white sock man or woman was pulled out first, so that’s another 2^Z choices to worry about. So 80-choose-X * (80-X)-choose-Y * 2^Z.

Since Socks Maniac told us X=10, that accounts for 20 of the 44 black socks blindfolded men, leaving 24 black socks blindfolded men paired with 24 white ones blindfolded women (so Z=24), and the other 92 white socks blindfolded women paired up into Y=46 all-white women-on-women pairs. So the number of ways to get exactly 10 all-black male pairs is (80 choose 10) * (70 choose 46) * 2^24. Dividing by the 160-choose-44 to pull socks out of the drawer in the first place, and Wolfram Alpha says you get around 0.01854, or a little under a 2% chance.

Hmm, I see I can’t post links, or even mention the Wolfram Alpha web site by name, without sounding like spam. But anyway, it will happily evaluate

((80 choose 10) * (70 choose 46) * 2^24) / (160 choose 44).

Thanks, Michael!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

From reading your blog/column, you sound like an outgoing, extroverted type. So maybe you can give a few pointers to we introverts: what are some good ways to start conversations with strangers? I tend to do OK once I’m actually talking to somebody, but I always feel awkward when trying to initiate contact with other people.

I’m single and I don’t have a ton of friends, so this seems like a useful skill to develop.

I’m Nervous To Join

Dear INTJ,

I think the key is to project a friendliness and openness to the stranger you are talking to, and if it turns out you’re wrong and the person is unfriendly or closed off, then not taking it personally.

So for example, when I see people knitting awesome stuff on the subway, I am pretty much always going to pipe up and tell them how beautiful that piece is. About 65% of the time this leads to an excited conversation about how awesome and useless knitting skills are, and sometimes even leads to the discovery of a new yarn shop or sale or website for one of us. But the rest of the time the person has no interest in talking, and I just walk away. I don’t feel bad for being friendly and wanting to connect with someone, because that is frankly what humans do and it’s not something to be ashamed of.

Note one thing: there was a “reason” for me to talk in the above scenario, and that’s key. It doesn’t make sense to walk up to someone with absolutely no cause and strike up a conversation. Having said that, the reason doesn’t have to be all that good, especially if there’s alcohol involved. It could be as simple as, “I love your shirt!!”, although that’s an opener for truly extroverted people.

One last thing. The more confident you are that most people are friendly and open, the higher your chances are of making a connection, so that leaves you with a bit of a tough feedback loop to get into. I suggest having an extroverted wingwoman or wingman the first few times to show you some ropes and to demonstrate how fun it is to be friendly. And good luck!

Aunt Pythia


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