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Aunt Pythia’s advice

April 19, 2014

Great to be here, and glad you came.

Please hop on the nerd advice column bus for another week of ridiculous if not damaging guidance from yours truly, Aunt Pythia.

And please, after enjoying today’s counsel to other poor, unsuspecting fools:

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.


Aunt Pythia,

I’m so SORRY. When I asked your opinion about conference sex the other week I thought I had pasted the link to the article: Will you still medal in the morning? It’s all about the behind the scenes sex at the Olympics.


Dear ORR,

Let me remind readers of your original question (after giving them a chance to read the article). You (thought you) gave me the link and then made the comment:

If conferences like JMM were to have bowls of condoms at the end of the tables where you pick up your badge do you think people would get the idea and pocket a hand full, then use them?

Answer: no. And that’s a good thing. As much as I’m sex positive, and I truly am, I don’t think what’s going on there in the Olympic Village is really about sex. I mean, that’s super dumb for me to say, because obviously tons of sex is happening, but it’s really about freedom and control and conquests.

So, for example, when you go to college, you notice that the kids who had controlling parents and no freedom in high school are particularly prone to spending too much money, drinking too hard, and fucking anything that moves, even relative to the kids whose upbringing was more relaxed and free. It’s about asserting control over their destiny and their freedom, and it lasts a couple of months and then calms down, hopefully in time for them to pass their classes. I’m absolutely sure of this phenomenon but come to think of it I’ve never seen statistics, which is probably a good thing.

Now think about Olympic athletes. They have lives utterly controlled by their coaches and parents and practices, and between you and me it’s often a neglectful if not abusive situation for those kids. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they hate every minute of it, especially the ones we hear from who win the medals, but if you account for the selection bias for a minute and just think about the childhoods these kids have, your heart breaks for them.

So when they finally get to be somewhere away from their coaches, and this ridiculous pressure is off after their events, they need to somehow assert their freedom to themselves, and the most obvious way to do that is to party hard and fuck anything that moves. Plus it’s even better if they have a long list of conquests, because they’ve been trained to be super competitive.

Now think about math people to contrast this. I’m not saying no condoms are used at a math conference, but generally speaking math people have agency over their own lives, time to have sex when they want and so on, so when they get to a math conference, they just have more of the same. There’s some tension built up before one’s talk, and so in that sense there’s some blowing off of steam, but it’s not Olympic level.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I wrote to you a while ago ranting about how my boss sold me a middle-office IT job as a front-office quant role. Anyways, just wanted to let you know that I did manage to land a quant research role at another buy-side firm, and even though you can’t tell if it’s a scam without being there, it seems promising (I’ll start in about a month). I asked smarter questions this time and the pieces seem to be lining up. I want to thank you for providing a voice of sanity, which is always welcome but especially crucial in trying times where one needs to cut through cognitive dissonance.

Perennial Employee

Dear PE,


Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Reading about people who are trying to find love or a companion at various places (via online dating or in physical environments) at Aunt Pythia’s Saturday column, why do not you consider creating an online dating site for these high-profile intellectuals?

I considered doing this myself during graduate school when I had many smart and single people around who wanted to have a girl or boy friend but for some reason could not, I did not have the courage or time to invest in this.

How about Aunt Pythia, who has so many followers? I personally checked out some online dating environments, but it was so hard to find really sophisticated people and I did not feel like talking to all those people with the hope that one of them was the good looking nerd I was after.


Dear Idea,

I like your idea (har har!), but here’s the thing. If I started an online matchmaking thing, I’d first of all not restrict to “high-profile intellectuals,” and second of all it would be very very different from the stuff that already exists.

So for example I’m definitely of the opinion that knowing someone’s age, race, height, and weight and seeing a picture of them makes 99% of all people unfairly unattractive.

It’s a case of knowing the wrong thing about someone. I mean, I’m not saying that you don’t eventually know those things about someone you’re into, but you don’t focus on them if it’s an organic meeting. It’s just the wrong information to provide and makes things less sexy and painfully judgmental.

Let me say it this way. Some woman going online for a date might think she needs the man to be taller than she is, and filter stuff out that way, but in real life she’ll meet someone at a party and be really into him and later realize he’s probably a couple inches shorter than she is and she won’t care at all.

So what information would I ask people to provide instead? That’s a toughie, and I’d love your help, readers, but here’s a start:

  1. How sexual are you? (super important question)
  2. How much fun are you? (people are surprisingly honest when asked this)
  3. How awesome do you smell? (might need to invent technology for this one)
  4. What bothers you more: the big bank bailout or the idea of increasing the minimum wage?
  5. Do you like strong personalities or would you rather things stay polite?
  6. What do you love arguing about more: politics or aesthetics?
  7. Where would you love to visit if you could go anywhere?
  8. Do you want kids?
  9. Dog person or cat person?
  10. Do you sometimes wish the girl could be the hero, and not always fall for the hapless dude at the end?

That’s a start. Again, looking for more. I think there should be about 20. Also people should answer in sentences.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a graduate student in a STEM field who happens to also be of the male inclination….oh, and I’m gay.

Now, this normally isn’t so much of an issue (though it has been!) with my social circle/friends outside of the academia, but I’m a bit concerned about disclosing this sort of information to the department, my advisor, and other STEM graduate peers, because, well

  1. in my humble opinion, STEM departments are not the most gay friendly. I mean, if you’re a gay male, surely you should be studying creative writing or writing your thesis about continental philosophy’s role in post-WWII imperialism (honestly, the former has been said to me….though the latter sounds like an interesting blog post or two), and 
  2. my main concern is the future of my academic career. Who are we kidding here, people making hiring decisions in the future may not be that cool with the whole “I’m here and queer!” thing. It could affect my career, negatively. (Ever been to Princeton btw?)

Please feel free to straightsplain to me that I’m being paranoid (though I won’t think I was being paranoid, would I?)


Sardonic Albeit Distinctly Fearful About Gay-friendliness


First of all, I have been to Princeton, thanks for asking.

Second of all, I don’t think you’re being at all paranoid. In fact it warms the cockles of my heart that you might even feel like you’re being paranoid asking about this, and it’s a testament to how far this country has come since I was a graduate student. Progress!

But only partial progress, to be sure. One of the weirdest things about the academic math market is how you’re expected to up and move to just about anywhere for a one year post-doc or what have you. And many people, especially outside of math, don’t actually want to do that, even if those places are nice places. When you add to that the fact that many of those places aren’t particularly nice, and are still crazy backwards when it comes to accepting gay people, then your job search is getting narrower.

Even so, you might want to take that job in that no-so-nice place, especially if it’s only for one year. I get that.

My short-term advice to you is to do what you need to do to keep your options wide, and if that includes coming out because you’re fed up with this bullshit, then definitely keep that in mind. My long-term advice is to end up eventually in a nice place where you can be accepted. Such places exist and the great news is they are increasing in number.


Aunt Pythia


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


Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. April 19, 2014 at 8:17 am

    re: dating questions…
    Not sure it helps in matchmaking but I’ve always liked a question from an old “This American Life” episode:
    If you could possess one of the following superpowers which would it be? —
    1) the ability to make yourself invisible at will, or, 2) the ability to fly (like Superman)


    • April 19, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      As long as you get the “why” as well as the “which” I’d be ok with that. The problem might arise that someone would want to be able to disappear because they’re nervous, or because they’re sneaking in on other people doing creepy things. See what I mean? It’s all about the why.


  2. anon
    April 19, 2014 at 8:27 am

    SADFAG – I just had a good fried who is openly gay get a faculty job in applied math. He even had a biding war between two universities trying to recruit him. When he expressed concern about the gay community in one of the cities he was considering (it was a southern city) the department made sure to arrange meetings with several of the other gay STEM faculty, deans, etc. (I don’t know if the other Uni. did anything special in those regards). So while I think AP’s advice is good, I just wanted to say anecdotal evidence says don’t be sad!


  3. pjm
    April 19, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Wow, young math people more sexually self-actualized than athletes. Talk about counter-intuitive results (though it could be true).


    • April 19, 2014 at 11:42 am

      Nerds are more self – actualized than a lot of people. It’s a theory I just came up with but I like it.


  4. Math
    April 19, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Another question: Would you rather spend money on good food or good alcohol?


  5. Nes
    April 19, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Athletes on the average are in better shape and are therefore more attractive and more confident than Mathematicians (or the public in general). So given our weakness to chain reactions, if you accept that any two attractive people are even slightly more likely to “hook up” than average its easy to see why the Olympics would “descend” into a sex fest and a Math conference probably would not. My theory is a lot simpler and doesn’t need this pop psychology which I feel falls apart once you look outside the west. This ubiquity of rebellion or acting out is something I have never quite understood, maybe its a luxury available only in the wealthier parts of the world?


    • April 19, 2014 at 4:38 pm

      I am in no way suggesting that average mathematicians are either more attractive or more fit than average Olympians. Just that they have less steam to blow off.

      By the way, you are assuming that there’s a clear relationship between frequency of sex and standard levels of attractiveness. Although it might exist at the extremes, I’m certainly not sure it does in the middle. There should be some evidence for that at least. Anyone?


    • Larry Headlund
      April 20, 2014 at 9:58 am

      Athletes are more confident than mathematicians? Things have changed a lot since I was around academia. In The Old Days(TM) mathematicians were at the top of the academic pecking order and let everybody know it. You choose as your work a field where (a) you were in competition with the greatest minds in history[1] and (b) the vast majority thought was much to difficult for them. Not a combination to attract the unconfident, rather one which selects for those with (figurative) big clanging ones.

      Which nicely segues into a problem with math conferences as Plato’s Retreat reborn: the figurative becomes literal re the clanging ones. There is still a bit of a gender gap. SADFAG doesn’t really change things even thought a can’t come up with a good acronym for the female side. If nothing else STEM people can usually figure the odds[2] so the men know the typical conference doesn’t favor them and the women have presentations to prepare for.

      [1] Is anyone else gobsmacked by the scene in Good Will Hunting where the older mathematician is distraught and needs to be comforted when discovering that Will Hunting is harper than him? You study Neuman,Banach,Vittali, etc. (diverse list) and you are shocked there exists people smarter than you? On the other hand, it is true male mathematicians look a lot like Matt Damon.

      [2] I still don’t know why outsiders showed up to be fleeced at our department poker games where we played ‘thoe weird games with funny rules.’


  6. Jason M
    April 19, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Re: dating questions

    What is your spirit animal? Why?


    • Jason M
      April 19, 2014 at 3:25 pm

      What do you look like when you dance?


  7. David
    April 19, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    Cathy and Idea,

    I think the problem with creating a site for high-profile intellectuals is determining who is one. Honestly, some people are too humble and too arrogant, so there would be a bad selection bias.

    I would disagree with Idea’s observation but hopefully in a way that will make him more optimistic. No, it’s not a magic pill where you spend 10 minutes filing out your profile and meet your soulmate the next day; but I think you can meet a good-looking nerd (assuming that you have similar or other desired qualities to offer).

    I am currently going through an online dating phase of my life, spent a lot of time thinking about it. I could blog about it, if I had the time and energy (not a daily but perhaps a weekly blog).

    I like Cathy’s idea but I think that a website similar to Cathy describes already exists. It is OKCupid. Besides your profile, there are thousands (literally more than 1,000) of questions to answer. These are a multiple choice questions (some only yes/no); you answer them and can select which answer(s) do you accept and how important this question is to you. You can also add an “explanation”; which can be anything (including a witty comment). I think this actually works slightly better than full sentence answers as it allows the website algorithms to calculate a match %tage which (when taken with a grain of salt) works pretty well. You can also see the other people’s answer to questions that you answered publicly (given they answered them publicly; which most (~90%) people do). Yes, you can game that a little bit but you can only change your answer once every 24 hours, so it is actually somewhat hard to do.

    I probably went out on about 20 first dates (I tried another site, match.com, too) and honestly am surprised how pleasant the whole experience was. I think there were only two bad dates: the very first one where the conversation was stalling quite soon (and honestly, she wasn’t attractive enough for me) and one where the girl essentially wouldn’t shut up (that girl was actually quite attractive and I gave her the benefit of doubt (maybe she was nervous? :)) and was willing to go on a second date which she declined (by not answering my text)). Other than that, I think I could be friends with most of the rest of them and had I met them in real life, would consider dating, say, 50% of them. I am not saying for a high profile intellectual but good fraction of the women were very smart (say, 95th percentile, or better) and successful.

    Surprisingly, nobody looked outside of the expected attractiveness range given by their pictures (though of course, some looked better than the expectation (i.e., the mean) and some worse).

    That said, the experience experience is unfortunately somewhat different (worse) for women; which will be obvious from the general comments below:

    — I’ve never received a message equivalent to “that dress would look great on my floor” or “hi huns, how r doing”; women do

    — I’ve never received a message from someone of inappropriate age (other than a few people too young (~10 years younger which isn’t insane but about 5 years outside my state range) and I wasn’t offended :)); women do receive messages from people 20 years older.

    — I’ve met someone and found out they are bald or unemployed, or crazy; women have.

    — After you read someone’s profile and exchange a few messages, you get some idea of
    how thoughtful/smart they are; you can ask them what they do, etc.

    — It is a number’s game; you have to be ready that no matter how thoughtful your first message to someone is (message too long might mean you are trying too hard?), it may not get a response (this may be less true for women as I suspect men send many more first messages and thus receive fewer of them). You may get offensive message, not get responses from someone you really like (on paper), but certainly beats going to the bar.

    — A lot of profile will start their profile with a series of positive adjective about themselves and a lot of people are “fun”. Hence, I am not sure that question #2 actually works — what does “fun” even mean — isn’t that in the eye of beholder?

    So my advice, wearing the “Uncle David” hat for a bit, is to try online dating if you haven’t met the right person; especially if you are a high profile intellectual in your 30s, as presumably then you don’t meet a lot of like-minded single people in environment conducive to romantic situations. You have to put in some effort, but there is no free lunch…

    Full disclosure: I’m fairly good and young looking for my age (albeit somewhat short) which I suspect helped my online experience. I live in New York. Also, I’m a glass-full kind of person and like meeting new people.

    On the other hand I’m very nerdy (in that I am a PhD. in math, extremely curious, like learning new things, love a good science-fiction short story; but I don’t own any action hero figurines, etc.) and my profile shows that — I think that keeps a lot of people away (but the people that would not be a match, eventually).

    Sorry for the long post.


  8. mika haven
    April 21, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    I think that there should be at least one question about how much clutter you create and how much you can tolerate.

    Similarly, there should be a question about how freely you like to spend money and how freely you’re comfortable with a partner spending (someday potentially shared?) money.


  1. April 20, 2014 at 7:16 pm
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