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Aunt Pythia’s advice

April 26, 2014

Beep, beep! The nerd advice column bus is here, and impatient to start. Aunt Pythia is driving that nerd advice column bus. Cool? Are we getting the imagery? Also, the bus is painted in bright colors and has plastic flowers glued on to it in all sizes and fashions. It’s kind of a psychedelic hippy nerd advice column bus. And it’s rarin’ to go. There might be tinted windows too, not sure. Wait, yes there are, a few, in the back. Who knows what’s going on in there. I hear there’s a mini fridge and a couch back there too, but that was just a rumor.

After riding in – and exploring – Aunt Pythia’s spacious bus, 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.


Aunt Pythia,

How do I deal with the possibility that my skills as a scientist will become less hot?

I just defended and got an awesome technical staff gig. There is some grinding, and some research. I’m trying to stay published although I don’t want to ever be a professor. But there were hot spots of research I could see coming up as I was writing my dissertation, and neat projects underway with the new grad students using techniques I never practiced. We could hire some of them soon.

I’m afraid of being pigeon-holed to do exactly what I did in grad school, but I also don’t know how wide to spread myself; especially since I am now working with other professionals who (although not in my field) have spent years doing what I would be learning, and might more reasonably be assigned much of the task.

If I am a smart, capable researcher with good connections now, will I always be? Will I be discarded in 5y for some young, hot thang? Will my salary always beat inflation?

Crisis Of Narcissism

Dear CON,

Stay connected, go to interesting talks, don’t be an asshole, ask good questions, be generous to others, prevent yourself from stewing in jealousy, and you’ll be fine. Or else you won’t be fine because the whole economy blows up, but then it’s a crisis for everyone. I’m not worried about you in particular.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Please excuse my bad manners when I addressed you by your first name sans the kinship relation. I vow to be a better nephew in the future! 🙂

Glad my reply to your reply about fairness rankings provided a good rant opening for you (on America’s outrageous prison system). Yes, I think the relative chance of not being incarcerated for an action that under law can bring incarceration, and other probabilities like it, would make a great start towards an overall fairness measure. If possible I’d also like to measure how fair the laws and legal system are to begin with. The sheer number of laws on the books would probably play a role in this, but since this number is partly just a reflection of societal complexity, there would need to be more.

Elvis Von Essende Nicholas Friedrich Lester Otto Widener IV


Do you know what you (and everyone else on the bus) need(s) to do? Read The New Jim Crow. I just finished it. Devastating.

One of her major points is that the rules and laws are often colorblind or otherwise written to be fair, but they are not deployed in a fair manner. Specifically low-level drug charges are hugely discriminatory and largely responsible for the mass incarceration of so many black men that we’ve grown accustomed to during the last 25 year of the so-called War on Drugs.

In other words, the official rulebooks are rarely on their face unfair. The system has grown smarter than that. It’s an argument for understanding effective racism rather than deliberate racism, for example, by measuring outcomes.

Of course there are other ways to be unfair as well besides race, but I’m fairly convinced this is the biggie.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a undergrad in mathematics and want want to pursue research in pure mathematics. I claim no evidence for any exceptional ability in math and I wanna do it because I like it.

First of all the choice of Math as a major was rather criticized from where I come from (they are more into engineering). So I looked up for the opportunities for a math grad and realized that they are immense. But rather alarmingly I came to know that the recent opportunities in math are almost exclusively in Applied Math.

I would like to know if indeed there exist a place for someone average (in contrast to the math geniuses out there) to do pure math research and get a well-to-do job?

I never wanted a very high paying and demanding job. Just a simple one where I could be happy and free and won’t have to worry about my employment in near future.

Hoping that you would understand,
Thanking you,
A math undergrad

Dear math undergrad,

Very few people get paid to simply think about pure math. It’s a fact. Even professors are expected to teach. The exceptions are the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study. There aren’t very many of those.

So, I’m glad you like math, but the chances that you’re going to get a well-to-do job thinking about pure math when you’re not particularly talented at math are slim. Of course, you might be wrong, and you might be super talented at math. People are notoriously bad at knowing that kind of thing because they get distracted with things like social expectations and shitty timed math tests.

But let me take your word for it for the sake of the argument, that you’re into math but not very good at it. Actually I’ll assume you’re pretty good at it but not super top-notch. In that case I suggest you think about getting a job that allows you to pair your love for pure math research with something else, like teaching (of course you have to be quite good at math to teach it but there are different levels), or doing basic analysis in industry (i.e. applied math). There are lots of jobs that fall into this category, so don’t despair. Check them out with an open mind, many of them are very interesting. And good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What is this preoccupation with size? There’s any number of baseless articles, in silly magazines, implying (or worse, stating) some link between hand – genital – finger – brain – height – etc, with some aspect of sexual prowess – desirability – ability – intention – inclination.

And now the silliness has spread, zombie-like, to your readers!

So, how would one go about showing a correlation between gullibility and inconsequential ideas?

Satisfied in Melbourne

Dear SiM,

I think of this stuff as pure entertainment. People just want to talk about sex because they like sex and, although they can’t just have sex with random people (or so they think), they can strike up a ridiculous conversation about the relationship between hands and genitals. I’ll speak for myself when I say that I do that because I actually just want to talk about genitals. There, I said it, my secret’s out. Everybody knew that already. That’s why I blog.

It reminds me of the debate on pubic hair and shaving (or not shaving: Bush is Back, Baby). At the worst moment this seems like yet another oppressive patriarchal scheme to infantilize women. On the other hand, I’ve never heard of a man who, when actually confronted with copious hair, has refused to go along with it. So I’m tempted to think that for most men, and most of the time, it’s just an excuse to think about genitals rather than an oppressive scheme.

I mean, it’s both, but this morning I’m feeling generous.

In terms of the relationship between gullibility and inconsequential ideas, I think that’s the wrong question. We should really be thinking about the relationship between insecurity and inconsequential ideas, and we should use as the prime example the beauty industry. First they make us insecure, then we obsess over trivial and inconsequential things. But it’s insecurity that makes us gullible.

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. DJ
    April 26, 2014 at 11:21 am

    I think Math undergrad is asking “how do I get a job that involves pure math research” rather than “how do I get a job that exclusively involves pure math research.” In other words, an IAS position is not necessary; an ordinary faculty position at a research university would be fine.
    By itself, this doesn’t help all that much; you’ve merely reduced the difficulty level from virtually impossible (IAS faculty) to extremely hard (university professor). Aunt Pythia’s advice is spot on. In fact, I lived through it myself. In my undergrad years I pursued a pure math career intensely. During graduate school, I realized that achieving this dream was going to be far tougher than I thought. After graduating with my Ph.D, I took an industry research position, working in cryptography. Although cryptography is not pure math, it’s close enough that I’m happy with it. Now I’m a professor at a research university, still working in cryptography, and still convinced that my research (number-theoretic cryptography) is pure math, even if I say otherwise on my grant applications.


  2. Christina Sormani
    April 27, 2014 at 12:19 am

    Dear math undergrad,

    First if you are admitted to a doctoral program in math or applied math, then you are very good at mathematics (even if you aren’t one of the many outspoken kids who pretend they are so brilliant at it). If you are not admitted then you still may be quite good but probably want a masters first either in math or stats.

    Second, what is the undergraduate subject that you love? There are applied versions of almost every form of mathematics from number theory to geometry to group theory to partial differential equations. You can get a degree in either a pure or an applied department and just make sure you learn these applications and some computer programming on the side. If you like teaching, you can teach math as well.


  3. Charles Eldridge
    April 27, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    still more on discrimination (‘new jim crow’, etc.):


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