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Aunt Pythia’s advice

April 5, 2014

Aunt Pythia is psyched to be writing today after missing a couple of days of regular posts. Aunt Pythia loves you people and understands how much you rely on her ridiculous advice, so she really goes out of her way to get up on Saturdays, stretch out on the couch in her underwear and armed only with a laptop and copious coffee, and spout utter nonsense. She knows you love it to, and want it to continue indefinitely. So please, after enjoying today’s bilge:

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,

I am an undergraduate at a liberal arts college applying to REUs. If I don’t get into any, I won’t have any opportunities to do research before applying to PhD programs. Would that mean I won’t get into grad school either? What options do I have to prove I am research-ready?

Possibly Not Research Ready

Dear PNRP,

I’m just blown away by the list of REU’s that have sprung up since I was a wee lass. I mean, I went to one, it was at Duluth and run by the incomparable Joe Gallian, but I’m more or less sure it was the only one around back then. He’s been doing it since 1977, and although I wasn’t at the very first one, I was early enough so that all the participants names could fit on one shirt. Holy crap there’s a picture of me from this page at my REU:

Screen Shot 2014-04-05 at 6.20.45 AM

Man, we played a lot of bridge that summer.

OK sorry for the nostalgic stream of consciousness. I will now attempt to answer your question.

First of all, given that very few people used to do REU’s before grad school, I obviously don’t think that it’s strictly necessary. On the other hand, given how many now exist, I’m guessing it’s become a common if not vital signaling device for getting into grad school (readers, weigh in!). It’s also probably gotten easier to get into. Definitely apply to many of them.

If you somehow didn’t apply to enough and it’s too late and you don’t get in anywhere, don’t despair. Look around for a teacher at your school or a nearby school, or even online, that is willing to do a reading course with you and develop some kind of senior thesis type project, or open problem to solve.

I feel that I need to add that most of these programs don’t actually ask you to solve open problems. It’s more like a peek at graduate school math and a mindset of research rather than an expectation that you will publish a paper. I know because I’ve taught at a couple since my college years.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What kind of skills/classes do I need to break into data science as an undergrad? It seems like a really interesting field and I don’t know whether I’m qualified to jump into an internship or not. Currently a math major without any stats classes under my belt.

Data Internship Youngster

Dear DIY,

First steps: take a CS class in a scripting language like python, take probability and statistics, and read my recent book or at least skim it at the bookstore.

Second steps, if you have time: take classes on machine learning, Bayesian statistics, and ethics.

Third steps, if you have even more time: take an advanced programming class, an optimization or information theory class, and become an anthropologist.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the curriculums for the industry data science camps not popping up everywhere, for example at the Microsoft Research Center.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Pythia,

Thank you for answering my question about “fairness” rankings by mentioning the Gini coefficient and upward mobility study, both of which I found interesting and hadn’t seen before.

Though obviously major, money wasn’t the only thing I had in mind. Judicial systems that imprison unfairly – possibly due to unfair laws to begin with – unfair job and housing discrimination, unfair environmental conditions and situations (Bhopal comes to mind), reasonable access to medical care, or lack thereof – all of these could be tossed into a fairness score as well.

I guess that in the end though, “fairness” may be a little too vague and subjective a term to be attached to any meaningful objective ranking. Fortunately the world already has lots of watchdog organizations that observe and report on objectively measurable facets of human life. OWS is one such organization.

Thanks again,


First of all, that’s Aunt Pythia to you. Har har.

Actually, even though it doesn’t appear that you’ve asked another question, I want to thank you for giving me an opening to my favorite recent rant.

In the context of my weekly Occupy meetings, I’ve been thinking more and more about the outrageous prison system in our own country and the multitude of mostly minority young men in that system. It’s a truly disgusting and predatory big business. As one of my co-occupiers said, if you’re too poor for us to make money off of you directly, we will throw you in prison and make money off of your incarceration.

Which brings me to your idea of measuring that kind of unfairness, even within our own country, and indeed even within the city of New York. Here’s the idea I’ve been tossing around inside my head.

It’s been long tossed around that the rate of marijuana use is similar for whites and blacks but blacks are going to jail way more for possession, essentially because of Stop & Frisk. In other words, blacks are more likely to get caught and to not have a fancy lawyer to get them out of trouble when they find themselves in trouble.

It brings up a host of questions, but I’ll focus on one: what is the relative chance that someone can get away with a mistake?

In other words, think about it this way.  We all make mistakes, and young men (and women) are especially impulsive and judgment-lacking. So instead of asking whether they make mistakes, ask instead what the chances are that such mistakes will land them in jail or prison. I feel like those probabilities might be a good start at what you’re getting at. Do you agree?


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt P,

My question may appear a little blunt but it’s one that’s troubled me for ages and I can’t think of any other way to ask it, so here goes: Does clitoris size reflect sexuality?

I mean, might larger be associated with more dominant or further along the hetero/homo-sexual scale, for example?

My follow-up question is, how would one go about assessing this? No, I don’t mean you to say ‘with warm hands and a micrometer’ but a suggestion of the mathematic parameters and procedures.

Jenny Taylor

Dear …umm… Jenny,

I’m going to say no. I have the following reasons for this answer, with exactly zero evidence gathered and assessed. Namely, it’s patently untrue of penises, which we all think about all the time in this society, so why should it be true of clitorides? Yes, that’s the plural of clitoris, I looked it up.

Now it’s true that a given woman’s clitoris ebbs and flows depending on how sexually stimulated she is, but other than that I think you just assume randomness.

As far as follow up, I’m gonna have to say: none needed, but if you want to turn this into a weird pick-up line at a bar then the more power to you.

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. April 5, 2014 at 10:42 am

    That looks like Susan Goldstine in the extreme right of the REU picture. It must have been a fun summer.


  2. JSE
    April 5, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    I can name all the people but one: Zvezda Stankova, Matteo Paris, Cathy, ?, Lawren Smithline, Susan Goldstine.


  3. JSE
    April 5, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    “On the other hand, given how many now exist, I’m guessing it’s become a common if not vital signaling device for getting into grad school (readers, weigh in!).” Hey, this is one I can answer because I do graduate admissions. The people who will gain most from an REU are strong students from small or undistinguished colleges — going to an REU means you will get a letter from someone who can compare you to people who went to top graduate programs.


  4. quasihumanist
    April 5, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Since I also do graduate admissions at a place N rungs down from JSE (where N is large), I can say that if you can get letters saying that you can independently write moderately sophisticated proofs in your real analysis and abstract algebra classes, there are grad schools that will accept you. You only have a problem in this regard if you are going to such a small and mediocre SLAC that your analysis and algebra classes don’t focus on proofs (most likely because your fellow students can’t deal with them). Even then we might make exceptions, particularly if you are local.

    I’m not sure whether doing a PhD here is really a good idea (though most of our recent graduates have managed to find jobs teaching at liberal arts colleges), but, if you are good enough, you can always get a masters and good recommendations to better programs.


  5. Richard Séguin
    April 5, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    These programs are wonderful and make me feel a little jealous. When I was in high school in the sixties I was able to have some fun at NSF sponsored summer math programs (at Notre Dame and Berkeley), so it was a letdown when I got to college and there really wasn’t anything interesting for math majors to do over the summer. In contrast, my brother, in physical sciences, was able to find interesting summer activity related to his major.

    I hope you were able to see the North Shore while you were at Duluth. I grew up in Superior, across the bay from Duluth.


  6. JSE
    April 6, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    I remember taking a road trip from Duluth to see a movie at the Superior Mall, which was not.


  7. April 7, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    If you’re going to go with “clitorides” (as well you might), you could also use “penes”.


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