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Aunt Pythia’s advice

November 23, 2013

Aunt Pythia is hung over from excess rabble rousing and karaoke, but she’s determined not to miss another week of her beloved advice column. Aunt Pythia has missed you! As I’m sure you’ve missed her! Please enjoy today’s column, and

please, don’t forget to ask Aunt Pythia a question at the bottom of the page!

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


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have an older sister. She’s a lovely and good person. Very generous, very friendly. And very assertive, in an oldest-child-in-the-family way.

I love my family, but I often feel depressed and suffocated when I’m around my sister. Is it because I feel she’s constantly giving input on how I could do things differently, and why she’s chosen to do things the way she does as if she has a PhD on the subject, and I often am left doubting my own abilities to make decisions even though I know that in reality I have a pretty good head on my shoulders? Maybe. Is it because of the authority she speaks on any topic, even ones she knows very little about? Is it because she doesn’t seem to entertain the possibility that anyone else could have anything to add in terms of input? Is it because she rarely shows any kind of vulnerability? Is it because she’s so assertive that it often feels like she’s taking up all of the oxygen in the room? Is it because she does all of these things even while, at the same, she is being utterly helpful, generous, and selfless in most other ways? Yeah, maybe that too.

Whatever it is, it hardly seems like a good reason to get depressed or to distance myself from someone who genuinely loves me and whom I love. I get that this is my issue, and the problem is how I feel about myself when I’m around her. I want to get over this. I just don’t know where to start.

Family Stuff

Dear Family Stuff,

To be honest I double- and triple-checked that I don’t have any younger siblings when I read this, because it could be about me. I could totally be that older sister, and I imagine that many people feel this way about me.

But if I’m right, and if your sister is a lot like me, then I don’t think it’s “your issue” to get over. I’m guessing it’s more like a series of signals that she’s giving out that are not hitting the intended targets. And if I’m right, she actually does want you to add stuff, but she expects you to jump right into the ring and not need an invitation.

So, when she gives advice, think of her words as her unedited thoughts, and do with those thoughts what you may. You can test this theory by every now and then pointing out, “I tried that already, it didn’t work” and see what she says. If she’s like, “Oh cool, how about trying this?” then you know she’s just taking stabs.

And, when she has an opinion on everything, maybe she’s just trying to engage in a provocative conversation and wants to be challenged. I do that all the time (duh). So next time she says something that sounds uninformed, say something like, “Hey that sounds wrong to me – should we check the facts?” and see how she reacts. She might be psyched for the challenge and for the chance to learn something interesting.

As for your sister showing no vulnerability. The funny thing about family is, we are our most vulnerable with our family, and yet we are also very comfortable with them, because we know them so well. You might be surprised by how vulnerable she really is. At the same time, you might not want to test this one, because it’s usually a negative experience to expose vulnerability in someone else. In any case my advice here is to not assume an entire lack of vulnerability around family, even if it looks like that.

Last piece of advice: go read my recent post called “Cathy’s Wager.” It’s about how to react when people are treating you not-so-nicely. I think it’s relevant here, because the overall point is that it’s not about you. Your sister is who she is and she’s very likely not doing all this stuff in order to make you feel stifled and depressed. She’s a know-it-all loudmouth, true, but the sooner you can either get on her wavelength (see above tips) or roll your eyes and love her in spite of her pushy know-it-all ways the better for you and for her. Don’t take it personally.

Either that or just never see her again. That’s totally fine too, honestly. I don’t agree that you have to hang out with family, unless possibly if they’re dying or in need.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

What ever happened to the proof of the ABC conjecture by Mochizuki that you talked about a year ago?



I unfortunately missed him when he came to Columbia, but Brian Conrad recently came and updated the math community on the status of the alleged proof. I believe the bottomline was that it has not been confirmed by anyone. So, I’d say this means it’s not a proof.



Dear Aunt Pythia,

This is a longtime worry of mine. Since you are a master of both abstract as well as the quantitative, let me query you regarding the deep connection that seems to exist between the two. To put it simply, the question is, “Does Size Matter?” More precisely, does Size influence tender feelings of the heart?

Sizeable Confusion

Dear SC,

I’d guess about as much as anything else physical, like boob size or leg length. In other words it might be a pretty big deal initially, as in during the first few minutes, but then when real love sets in it’s a total non-issue.



Dear Aunt Pythia,

Many government officials testified that there is no way for them to tell how many people signed up for Obamacare. Can extracting the data from the website be that complicated? I am worried and lost.

Worried about Obamacare

Dear Worried,

Well many people have been busy counting this stuff since you submitted that question, and the final number for the first day of Obamacare seems to be 6. Given how small that number is, I’m going to assume it wasn’t that hard to count, or at least approximate at “0”. In other words, it might have been a political decision to repress the actual number.

On the other hand, engineering large-scale systems is actually pretty complicated, and it might not make sense to have a single repository to put all the enrollment figures – who knows, and I didn’t design this system, so I don’t – so I can imagine that it was actually non-trivial to figure out the answer to this question.

By the way, I’m planning to write some posts on how we are increasingly seeing pure engineering issues become political issues. There’s Knight Capital’s trading mistakes, then there’s Obamacare. Those are just two, but my theory is that they are just the beginning of a very long list. The nerds are taking over, in other words, or at least their mistakes are.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I sent you a question a few weeks back and you didn’t answer it (which is completely fine). What is your criteria for answering a question or not? Maybe your answer might help me rewrite my question in a way that suits you better.

Socially Awkward Dude

Dear SAD,

Here’s the thing. I’m pretty desperate over here, what with a pretty short list of questions, and a stubborn refusal on my part to make up fake questions (although I do accept other people’s fake questions!). So there had to be something about your question that didn’t sit well with me. Here are some possibilities as to why:

  1. The question was something I couldn’t answer, because it required expertise I don’t have.
  2. The question was really long and not easily edited down to something shortish.
  3. The question wasn’t really a question, just a rambling speech.
  4. The question was spam.
  5. The question was verbally abusive towards me.
  6. The question struck me as disingenuous in some way.
  7. The question is a lot like other questions I’ve already answered (note to the 40 people asking me how to become a data scientist: read my book called Doing Data Science!)

I have no idea which question was yours, but if you’d care to resubmit, making sure it’s to the point, has a specific and earnest question, and is about something I have knowledge about, then I’m guessing it will get through.

I hope that helps!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a late-20’s data scientist (working at a large non-tech company) about to apply for Ph.D. programs in machine learning. My reason for doing this is two-fold. One, I enjoy research and feel that I can contribute to humanity through scholarship, even if the contribution may be small. Two, I’ve grown disillusioned with working in a corporate environment – it seems like one needs to be more of a politician than a genuinely nice and high-performing individual to be recognized. But I realize this is partly due to the size of my organization (are start-ups any different?).

However, I’ve heard people tell me that academia is no different. Given the publish-or-perish paradigm, people are more interested in how many citations they have than they are about truly advancing human knowledge (for example, this was a depressing read).

You transitioned from academia into industry. Do you have any advice for someone who’s trying to make the opposite transition?

Naively Bayesian

Dear NB,

First of all, start-ups are sometimes different, although they work you really hard and often expect you to sleep under your desk. This might not work for you, but it might be worth it if you get to have influence. Also, I’d suggest going with a very small start-up: as soon as there are like 60 people, your potential influence typically gets pretty miniscule.

Second, my motto is “You never get rid of your problems, you just get a new set of problems.” So it’s more a question of which kinds of problems suit your personality than anything else.

But there’s one thing I can assure you: there’s politics everywhere. You’re not getting away from that, so if you’re really allergic to politics, I suggest you find a place where you can safely ignore that stuff, like maybe in a cave in the woods.

But seriously, I’d suggest you talk to a lot of people and see what kind of problems are there, without exaggerating them too much (I feel like that link is too aggressive for example, although there are grains of truth in it). And most importantly, try to find something to do that actually interests you in an intellectual way so you can become absorbed in your own sense of curiosity and shut out the real world at least once a day. Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Sick and Tired
    November 23, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Regarding the question by Family Stuff: I have the same kind of family. Several people in my immediate family are always giving unsolicited advice. I have never told any of them what to do, but they are constantly telling me what I should do / have done differently.

    I have decided that it’s their problem and not mine, but it’s going to be hard to keep ignoring it my entire life and at some point there’s going to be a blowup. My mother gets angry if I don’t take her advice. I hear the advice, take it into account along with other factors, and sometimes I follow it and sometimes I don’t. That’s what advice is for.

    Ever notice how easy it is (for some people) to tell other people what to do? “You should get a masters degree”, “your son should keep paying piano”. It only take 3 seconds to give the advice, but it would actually take you thousands of hours of work to follow that advice!!! We agonize over decisions and then they are picked apart in seconds by our family. It’s not a debate, it’s a decision that we made and it’s not up for discussion.

    They also don’t think any information is private, like household income, how much something cost, or family medical matters. I wonder if Family Stuff has those same problems, because it’s all about poor boundaries.


  2. DJ
    November 23, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    NB, I transitioned from industry to academia. I don’t think any one environment has a monopoly on political bullshit. In fact, except for obvious areas of concentration like politics (duh) and law, political gamesmanship seems to me to be approximately uniformly distributed eveywhere. Even startups have to deal with external funding.

    If you want to minimize disillusionment, then you should directly optimize for that variable, without constraining yourself to subdomains such as industry or academia. I was choosing between both types of job offers at the time that I switched. Happily, I believe my current department must be close to, if not equal to, a global minima in the bullshit metric. For example, my tenure case was smooth despite a not-so-impressive citation count. On the other hand, I don’t get to live in a big city (I prefer big cities). You can’t have everything.

    Still, I bet that if you look hard enough, you can find a reasonable working environment in industry with less net effort than it would take to do a Ph.D. The road to a Ph.D is long and tedious. Make sure you’re in it for reasons other than just politics.


  3. mathematrucker
    November 23, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    When having to guess, the “it’s not about me” assumption has its place in everyday life, but I think it should be used in moderation. Excessive use would seem to evidence an underlying “if it’s about me, then I have a problem” assumption, which is usually false.


  4. Jon Ziegler
    November 23, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Two ways to avoid politics in the (industry) workplace…

    I have had the privilege to work for a very small tech company, under ten people and with no investors and no desire to grow. There were no politics; instead there were personalities. This is not the same thing at all, and I found it highly preferable. If you can find people you like and start (or join) a company like this then you can avoid politics.

    I’ve also enjoyed working as a contractor in the software world. I’ve noticed that when you encounter bitch sessions at companies I have been at, people sitting around at lunch or whatever complaining about being unappreciated, working too much, uncompensated overtime, unreasonable expectations, etc. it’s always the employees and never the contractors. Being a contractor is simple: you work, you get paid. If they like you, they give you more work. If they want you to work extra hours, the pay you for it. In my experience it’s a fairly easy and equal relationship.

    Just a couple of examples of how politics are not completely unavoidable. I’m not saying they’re perfect, and I’ve spent only about half my career like that, but these are ways to avoid politics if that’s what you’re after. I’m now retired, which is another fine way to avoid politics.


  5. November 24, 2013 at 9:46 am

    A few years ago I realized that I was being like Family Stuff’s sister after my sister started shutting down conversations about topics she was really sensitive about and I really wanted to help with. We talked about it and I was embarrassed and sorry because she’d basically told me repeatedly what I was doing wrong over the years – in her own, less straightforward way. It took a while, but I become the overbearing big sister less often now. And when I do, she just hears a long stream of “I love you and I’m worried.” Plus, it’s made it easier for both of us to accept help from the other!


  6. pjm
    November 24, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    I like the Lee Smolin comment from the post dissing EPFL and academia in general.


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