Home > Aunt Pythia > Aunt Pythia’s advice: the long and boring edition

Aunt Pythia’s advice: the long and boring edition

November 30, 2013

If you’re feeling anything like Aunt Pythia is feeling, you don’t want to even look at any food that has been peeled, baked, poured into a pie crust, mashed with butter, or stuffed into a turkey. It’s chopped cucumbers and raw apples from here on out, with plentiful brisk walks in the sunshine. Yes or no?

And also, is it just me, or has it been approximately 40 years since Aunt Pythia’s last column? Or is that just measured in “dishes done” years?

Before Aunt Pythia gets down to the advice part of the column, which is particularly long and boring and for which she apologizes, she wants to draw attention to the Black Friday protests that many of her Occupy friends took part in yesterday in Secaucus, New Jersey at Walmart.

It was a national day of Walmart protests, but here in Secaucus we had a large Occupy presence – note my friend Marni, who is holding up a deceased Walmart employee. More pictures are available here.

Now down to business. As you enjoy today’s column (or as you nod your way through it, as the case may be),

please, think of something to ask Aunt Pythia 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,

Some cosmological theories talk about the universe as being a mathematical space, rather than a pile of floating rocks and other real stuff. I always thought that mathematics consisted of rules for writing squiggles on bits of paper that sometimes produced sets of squiggles that corresponded with the real out-there stuff.

Am I a tiny part of the solution to a humungous equation? I’m happy with being made of fundamental particles but this is something else. What’s your take? Are there any practical consequences?


Dear Perplexed,

I’m no philosopher, but as a mathematician I’m here to tell you that mathematics doesn’t describe the universe. It’s at most used as a tool to understand certain parts of the universe, but only at the level of an approximation.

So for example, there’s no such thing as a circle in reality. It’s an idealized shape we use in mathematics that comes in super handy for various reasons, but because actual matter is made up of stuff, there’s never going to be a true circle, except in our brains. You can extend that concept of approximation to other mathematical models of the universe as well, at least as far as I understand it (Peter, please correct me if I’m wrong here!).

As far as each of us being a tiny part of a solution to a humungous equation, it all depends on how you look at it. I’m sure I can set up an equation that would dictate how many children my parents had, and then by construction I’d be in some sense a part of the solution to that. If you’re thinking more metaphysical than that, I can’t help you, and I doubt it would be more meaningful than that, although it might be wrapped up in fancier wrappers.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am mulling reinventing myself (again). I used to be a lawyer, but it was entirely too demanding and inhumane to manage that and a family life. So I downshifted. Now I use the law degree writing for a legal publication. It’s a 40 hour work week, I have awesome benefits, I am able to take my kids (including the special needs one) to all their crap.

There are only two problems with this nirvana: I don’t make a lot and I’m bored off my butt. My spouse is, unfortunately, utterly useless at home and has proven that he (1) will always put work first, period – because he thinks he’s making the world a better place, and (2) won’t sell out and make some money, because that would be evil. Look, it’s a package deal and that’s who he is, apparently.

This leaves me with a conundrum, and I’m getting quite tired of being poor. One needs a tutor and one needs more behavioral therapy, and I’m not sure where that money is going to come from. I can go and take a government counsel job, I believe that I can get one, and make substantially more than I make now. Like, twice as much roughly. The hours will be a little worse, the commute will be a lot worse. All told, I figure I’d lose 2 extra hours a day, at least.

There’s no guarantee I’ll like it, of course, but I know I’m bored with the current job. And it has no room for growth. I wonder if I’m better off trying to take a second job or make money contracting rather than going whole hog and jumping careers again? I’ve been where I am about 3 years.

Considering Aunt Pythia has jumped ship quite a few times with her skill set, I’m curious if she has insight for me.

Proudly OK on Rent, But Otherwise Rarely Excited Daily


First, I appreciate your sign-off, and second, you were seriously bumping up against the length limit but the sign-off got you through.

And I get needing to prioritize your kids, but I’m going to take issue with two things: your hubby and your boredom.

First, your boredom. Not cool. You need to be interested in your own life, and being bored off your butt is seriously not cutting it. Be more selfish than that, and do it for your kids. They need a mom who’s also a role model. Go find a better job, that pays enough for your needs and that interests you.

Second, your husband. Also not cool that he’s “utterly useless at home,” both because you are wasting time resenting him and because you genuinely need his help. And don’t give me that “because he’s saving the world” crap. He’s not helpful because he’s gotten away with not being helpful. It’s a deal you made with him, possibly (probably) without thinking enough about it. Time to renegotiate. Oh, and renegotiating shitty deals that don’t work for you is also a good role modeling opportunity for your kids.

Here’s how I’d work this. Sit your husband down when the two of you have time, on a weekend evening after the kids are asleep, and tell him you’re bored, need a more challenging job, and that will mean he needs to help out with the house and the kids, because chances are your new job will have more commuting time or whatever.

Next, explain how you’ve worked out the schedule for both of you (if you need to), or ask him to help work it out with you so that it all works. Don’t ask him for help like he’s got an option, because you need this, and that means the family needs this. You guys are a team, and teams work together to make things work.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Two economists have recently posted a paper arguing that Fields Medalists’ productivity decreases after they get their Fields Medal. While this certainly seems plausible psychologically (after all, proving minor theorems might seem anti-climactic after you’ve solved the major open problem in your field), when I looked at this paper, it seemed that the statistics in it were very naive, in that the authors completely ignored any possible post-conditioning; this leads me to believe that the conclusion is quite likely to be wrong. I have two questions:

Are the statistics used in most economics papers this poor, and if so, how can we trust economists to run our economy?

Would it be worth redoing the statistics in this paper to show up these economists, and maybe to defend Fields Medalists against their charges of being lazy?

Burnt-Out Prizewinner

Dear BOP,

First of all, without even reading the paper I’d say we shouldn’t trust economists to run our economy. They have already proved their vested interests are too distracting for such a responsibility.

Second, I scanned the paper, and I’m not very interested in their model but I am kind of interested in their appendix, where they have the following graph:

Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 7.37.47 AM

After all, I want to see the data, and here it is. Look carefully at the comparison group for the Fields Medalists: people who won another big award besides the Fields Medal and have “above-media per-year citations” during the eligibility period.

My question is, why did they include that second part about citations? It’s muddying the waters, for me at least. Did the actual winners also have above-median per-year citations? Are we assuming that the Fields Medal committee uses that as a criterion for eligibility? It’s weird, and I think the data would be cleaner without that stipulation: we’d just be comparing Fields Medalists versus “other” medalists. Now I’m thinking we’re cherry picking. After all, I can imagine that people who get lots of citations are also like to write more papers.

Next, I’d like to see the data on the individual basis or in some way see what kind of error bars we’re talking about here. The fact that there’s a three-year average in the above graph tells me this data is somewhat noisy. Plus the fact that the three-year average is centered on the middle year is weird. All graphs should reflect data known by a certain date.

But finally, I’m willing to ask, who cares? I guess I don’t care about awards in math much, but even if I did, I’m not willing to agree that the whole point of giving out Fields Medals is to “encourage further achievement” on the part of the recipient, even if Fields himself said that. I’ma go with the other reason, which is to get people to compete against each other (yuck).

Whatever, it’s not like you’re going to get a second Fields Medal or something. If you were doing stuff in order to win a Fields Medal, then after getting it, you’d stop, right, and do something else that’s interesting? Makes sense to me.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I agree with your answers to recent question that often enough folks’ criticism of others stems from their own insecurities. Meditating on the fact was making me depressed, until I found an uneaten cupcake in the cupboard, and then thought: do you think that it also works the other way around?

Even if it doesn’t, your site is da bomb! <fingers crossed>.

Mmmm…a cupcake

Dear Mmmm,

First of all, I don’t trust cupcakes in cupboards. At least at my house that signals something very very wrong, that a cupcake made it into a cupboard. Shoulda at most made it onto the counter. Most cupcakes don’t make it out of the shopping bag around here.

Second of all, are you crossing your fingers because you’re hoping to get your question into the column? Or is it because you’re hoping mathbabe.org really is da bomb? Cuz it is, so your hopes have been fully realized.

Next, to your question. By “the other way around,” I’m going to guess you mean the following: when people are insecure about something, they accuse others of having that flaw. The answer is yes, absolutely.

In fact it’s generally true that when someone is sensitized to an issue, even if it’s not one of insecurity, then they see it everywhere, all the time, as if for the first time. There’s a running joke in my family that whenever someone starts a sentence with “Have you noticed lately that…” then what follows that will be a selection bias in exactly that way. So, have you noticed lately that everyone is wearing incredibly awesome flannel shirts? That’s because I got comfort on da mind over here.

Anyhoo, same thing for insecurities. If one is feeling like one’s acne is out of control, one sees other people’s pimples a mile away. If I am ashamed of myself for being overly bossy, then I see overbearing behavior everywhere and I can’t understand how people can stand it. And although we do our best to not accuse people of stuff we’re aware of being sensitized to, it doesn’t always work out that way.


Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. November 30, 2013 at 1:44 pm


    At a fundamental level, whatever the world’s made of it’s not “real rocks” or “fundamental particles”, or any kind of stuff of the sort you have intuitions about. Best guess now is quantum fields, which you can’t really describe in everyday language. Mathematics is the only way to do this, like it or not.

    Conjecturally, there is some mathematical framework which perfectly accurately gives the laws of physics that govern the physical world. Presumably the best we have now is an approximation to that (one that’s actually very good for phenomena at energies we can observe).

    More to the point though is the problem of how you describe not the laws governing what happens, but how you describe the state of the world. There the best you can do is always some sort of approximation, maybe not a bad one if you want to describe something that behaves like a single elementary particle, but pretty much awful and useless for anything complicated. For people-scale objects and what they do, things are truly hopeless from the point of view of describing them in terms of fundamental physical theory. So, whatever anyone thinks about the role of mathematics in such theory, definitely no practical consequences ensue.



  2. Scott Garren
    November 30, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    Dear Aunty, I am neither a mathematician nor a physicist but I humbly suggest that you may have jumped a little too far in conclusion to the question “Am I a tiny part of the solution to a humungous equation? I’m happy with being made of fundamental particles but this is something else.” The “it from bit” school of physics seems to be really gaining momentum recently which if I understand it seems to state that we, the universe, are either all bits or at least mappable to a bunch of bits. Google “it from bit” or start with http://suif.stanford.edu/~jeffop/WWW/wheeler.txt and http://arxiv.org/abs/1306.0545


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