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Aunt Pythia’s advice

June 7, 2014

Peoples! Peoples!!

Aunt Pythia is super glad to be here. It’s a gorgeous day, Aunt Pythia has super fun plans that involve this place in Morristown, New Jersey, and the world is looking bright and colorful and happy. Aunt Pythia’s usual skeptical gloom has given way to rainbows and puppies (Aunt Pythia is a dog person).

Are you with me peoples?! Give it up for life! Give it up for humanity!!

Having said that, Aunt Pythia has more than her usual number of slapdowns to administer today, as you will soon see below.

Don’t be intimidated, though, folks! After watching the abuse, do your best to

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,

Have you seen this, combining two blog interests?


Dear Huh,

So yeah, shortest Aunt Pythia question ever. Turns out “this” is an article about yet another person who “hacked” OKCupid to find the love of their life. A male mathematician who dove headlong into the data mining of love. Ho hum.

Please also see [another earlier article], where it was a woman instead of a man. I can’t find it now because this article became so popular that it’s cockblocking my google searches. Wait, I think she gave a TED talk as well. Oh yeah here she is! And she reverse-engineered the algorithm, too. And honestly she’s telling her own story which is way more engaging than that article.

Anyhoo, here’s the thing. First of all, ew. He went on way too many dates too quickly. I’m glad he found love eventually, but let’s face it, he was making himself less receptive, not more receptive, by going on all those dates. Plus he was posing artificially based on his “mathematical research,” which came down to a clustering algorithm. Plus the woman he eventually proposed to FOUND HIM. Plus ew.

I think this reaction post said it best:

“…the idea that math (or, more broadly, “formulas”) can be used as a dating tactic is a surprisingly popular belief based on a number of very flawed premises, many of which reveal pickup artist-flavor misogynist attitudes among the nerdy white guys who champion them.”

Now given that I also have an example of a woman doing this, I’m not gonna claim it’s all about sexism (although there’s more than a veneer of nerdiness!). Rather, it’s all about the weird non-human mindset. Here’s another stab at what I’m talking about:

“But much of the language used in the story reflects a weird mathematician-pickup artist-hybrid view of women as mere data points anyway, often quite literally: McKinlay refers to identity markers like ethnicity and religious beliefs as “all that crap”; his “survey data” is organized into a “single, solid gob”; unforeseen traits like tattoos and dog ownership are called “latent variables.” By viewing himself as a developer, and the women on OkCupid as subjects to be organized and “mined,” McKinlay places himself in a perceived greater place of power. Women are accessories he’s entitled to. Pickup artists do this too, calling women “targets” and places where they live and hang out “marketplaces.” It’s a spectrum, to be sure, but McKinlay’s worldview and the PUA worldview are two stops along it. Both seem to regard women as abstract prizes for clever wordplay or, as it may be, skilled coding. Neither seems particularly aware of, or concerned with, what happens after simply getting a woman to say yes.”

So, again, it’s not just men who do this. Women who are ABSOLUTELY OBSESSED WITH FINDING MR. RIGHT also do this. They stop thinking about men as people and start thinking of them as bundles of attributes. You have to be tall! And weigh more than me! And culturally Jewish!

If you want to think about this more, and how deeply damaging it is to society and our concepts of ourselves and our expectations of the future, not to mention how we perceive children, then take a look at the book Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. It’s super fascinating.

So there you go, a long answer to a short question.

One last thing: I’m not saying that you should give up on your own algorithms and trust OKCupid’s algorithms. Far from it! I just think that the key thing is to stay human. Plus all online dating sites are asking the wrong questions, as I mentioned here.

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m about to start a PhD in Math at a top-ranked place. I’m pretty sure I won’t end up in academia for a variety of personal reasons (mostly that my partner is a non-academic with a job that needs to be in New York, SF, or DC). What should I be doing my first year/summer to make sure I’m in a reasonably good place for a non-academic job hunt 5 or 6 years from now?

(And to make matters more complicated, both finance and government creep me out morally, but I really want to end up somewhere with some fun, interesting mathematics.)

Higher Education, Less Professionalism

Dear HELP,

Nice sign-off!

Make sure you know how to code, make sure you know how it feels to work in a company, make sure you keep your eye on what makes you feel moral and useful and interested. Oh, and read my book! I wrote it for people like you.

By the way, I’m hoping that, by the time you finish your Ph.D., there are better non-academic jobs out there for morally centered people with math skills. I’m just feeling optimistic today, I can’t explain it.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

With data science hype at an all-time high (and rising), I’ve been hearing of more and more people who are deciding to make a career change to data science. These acquaintances are smart, science-minded people, but without any background in advanced math, statistics, or computer science. An example background would be a bachelors degree in Chemistry. They are planning to take a few online courses, or a semester-long course or two, and then enter the job market.

My question is, do you think there’s a place for “data scientists” like these? Who’ve learned all the programming/machine learning/statistics they can in 3 months part-time but nothing beyond that? As someone with a strong technical background, I am skeptical that data scientists can be successfully churned out so quickly. Then again, if the hype is all it’s hyped up to be, maybe they’ll all get great jobs. Wondering what your take is.

Some Kooky Elitist Person Trying to Intuit Climate


Niiiiice sign-off! I am super proud.

Two things. First, I certainly believe that anyone who has a high general level of intelligence and works hard can learn a new field diligently. So I don’t doubt the intentions or efforts of our chemist friends.

On the other hand, do data science jobs allow for follow-up training and – even more importantly – thinking? I’m guessing some do but most don’t. So yes, I agree that for many of these people, it’s a disappointment waiting to happen. And yes, certainly 3 months training does very little. At best you can start thinking a new way, but it’s up to you to actually make things happen with that new mindset.

They might find out their job is really nothing like the job they thought they had. They might end up being excel or SQL database monkeys, or they might find out their job is a front so that the company can claim to be doing “data science.” Worst case they’re asked to audit and approve models they don’t understand which are being used in a predatory manner so they’re on the hook when shit gets real.

On the other hand, what are the options really? It’s a new field and there’s no major for it (UPDATE: there are post-bacc programs popping up everywhere, for example here and here). This is what new fields look like, a bunch of amateurs coming together trying to figure out what they’re doing. Sometimes it works brilliantly and sometimes it produces frauds who ride the hype wave because they’re good at that.

In short, stay skeptical but don’t presume that your friends and acquaintances have bad intent. Ask them probing questions, when you see them, about which above scenario they’re in, it might help them figure it out for themselves. Unless that’s creepy and/or obnoxious.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

How useful do you think “generate-and-test” results are? I am searching for good parameter settings using recent history from the last twelve days. For example, I just checked the report that is being generated and saw successful results eight times out of twelve. I actually could run a check against history, not including the last result and see how often the next result is good. Is this crazy or what?

Sleepless in Mesquite

Dear Sleepless,

I have never heard of “generate and test” so I googled it and found this, which honestly seems ridiculous for the following reason: how will you ever know your “solution” works?

So there is an example where it will work that illustrates my overall point. If you know that you have a line (“the solution”) and you know two (different) points that are on that line, then once you find a line with those points you know you’ve found the solution, because it’s unique.

Similarly, if you know your solution is a quadratic equation, then all you need to do is test it on three (different) points and you know you’re good.

But in general, how do you “test” a solution? Unless you are given, a priori, the form of the solution, to test your solution in general you’d need to try it on every point in the universe where you care about the solution working. That doesn’t sound like a useful approach.

I know I’m talking abstractly here, but you gave me very little to work with. In any case 8 out of 12 doesn’t sound very convincing, and 12 doesn’t sound big enough for much of anything. That is, even if you got 12 out of 12 I still wouldn’t be convinced you’re done unless I know more information.

I hope that was helpful!

Aunt Pythia


One more thing which didn’t come up in my questions but I wanted to mention (hat tip David Opela): this article, entitled There’s No Such Thing As A Slut, which I also posted recently on mathbabe. Most important excerpt, as noted by a commenter, is this:

Armstrong notes that midway through their college experience, none of the women had made any friendships across the income divide.

Take a look!


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. GPE
    June 7, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Alas, I’m one of those data-types with a bachelors in chemistry. (Biochemistry, actually. And another one in cell biology.) However, I didn’t stay there. It’s been a bazillion years and a bazillion^2 lines of code building boring financial and ERP programs since graduating with those degrees. So I’ve been a “data scientist” since before being a “data scientist” was cool.
    In defense of chemists, they make the best software debuggers. Why? When thinking about chemical reactions, a chemist has to think through not just every step in a reaction path, but as much of the system as possible – temperature, pressure, byproducts, containing vessel, dorky safety goggles, and such. The complexity escalates with biochemical soup. To be a good chemist, a rigorous and disciplined systemic thought process is essential. Otherwise, if luck holds out, one is left with a flask of smelly sludge and forced to start from the very beginning. If unlucky, the experiment can, quite literally, blow up in one’s face. That would be a bad thing.
    Software is much safer. Imagine if every time a code mistake was made and a program crashed, the unlucky coder had to recode everything from scratch. Likewise for data analysis, since sandboxes can be set up for safe experimentation. And then there are those handy dandy snapshots and backups.


    • cat
      June 7, 2014 at 8:47 pm

      “In defense of chemists, they make the best software debuggers.”
      I think I’ve heard this line from every holder of a BS in existence now.
      Which is why I’ve spent 1,000s of hours’ fixing code written by non CS majors fixing broken DOMs written by people who didn’t understand polymoprhism and rewriting code by people who don’t understand the difference between O(n) vs O(ln n).

      Regardless of what it may seem like, there is specialized knowledge required to do this job. It takes more then just being smart and logical mind.


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