## Aunt Pythia’s advice: the nerdy edition

Aunt Pythia is ginormously and ridonkulously excited to be here. She just got back from a nifty bike ride to the other side of the Hudson and took this picture of this amazing city on this amazing day:

OK, so full disclosure. Aunt Pythia kind of blew her load, so to speak, on the sex questions last week, so she’s making do with coyly answering nerdy questions. Because that’s what we got.

I hope you enjoy her efforts, and even if you despise them – *especially* if you despise them – don’t forget to:

**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.

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*Hi Aunt Pythia,*

*I’m a math student at MIT, where you did a postdoc. I’m also into computers, and am considering working in some finance classes. I could see myself being happy working for some big financial company that I don’t really care about, as long as I have interesting problems to work on, make a ton of money, and have bright people I get to work with. *

*My interests right now are in very pure math, I get chills just thinking about categorical-theoretic concepts. I’m planning to learn commutative algebra and algebraic geometry soon. I’m also likely to take stochastic calculus.*

*What kind of math did you do? Any tips on if taking the pure math I love will be of use, or at least get me “cred” with financial companies?*

*I do love math, and seeing that you did math at MIT and have seen this world of things, maybe you have some advice to offer me.*

*Thank you dearly.*

*Math Cult*

Dear MC,

Don’t do it!

Don’t take the math to get “cred” with financial companies. Do what is sexy and beautiful to you. If you love category theory, do that, then do algebra and algebraic geometry. I did number theory in the form of arithmetic algebraic geometry myself. It’s awesomely beautiful and I don’t regret one moment of it.

Let’s say you do decide to go into the “real world.” At the end of the day, if you can do that math stuff we’ve been talking about, you can learn other stuff too. So I’m not going to worry about you on the technical side of things.

On the other side of things, I’d like you to rethink the idea that you “don’t mind who you work for as long as you have interesting problems.” Is that really true? Once you leave pure math there are real applications of your work, and they affect real people. Shit gets real real quick and stuff matters, and I urge you to think it through some more.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

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*Dear Aunt Pythia,*

*Do all mathematicians visualize their problems? From a logical viewpoint there are a lot of mathematical spaces that don’t map onto an imagined 3d workspace but on limited conversations with working mathematicians they seem to me to do it at least at some stage of problem solving. *

*(I’m more of a physicist who visualizes nearly everything so maybe I’m misreading them.)*

*Inner glimmer*

Dear Inner,

Most, but not all. I once had a conversation with someone who couldn’t understand my drawing of a geometric map between spaces. I was explaining the concept visually (or at least I thought I was!) but he forced me to write it down with double sums and formulas, and I thought that was the weirdest thing ever, but that’s how it became understandable to him.

In general we do think visually, although we really can’t think beyond three dimensions (even though we pretend we can). I guess time makes it 4. Most geometers I know, ironically, don’t have a very good working sense of 3 dimensions, and definitely don’t have a good sense of direction!

Come to think of it my sample is too small, so I’m mostly just saying that for fun. It would be neat to get actual statistics on that. Maybe if I’m ever pulled into going to JMM again I’ll make people fill out forms. Oh wait, I’m going to JMM this January.

I can ask about this, it’s a nice question! Readers, what else should I poll math nerds on?

Aunt Pythia

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*Dear Aunt Pythia,*

*I’m an American mutt and for awhile I was annoyed when people asked “Where are you from” or “What’s your nationality”. I think I was sensitive to it because kids wanted to narrow down exactly which ethnic slurs to use. But as an adult, mostly people are just curious, and I’m happy to share since I’m curious about them too.*

*When I meet someone with an accent, I’m curious about them and their background, what it’s like in their home country, how they came to the US, etc.*

*What is an appropriate way to ask about someone’s ethnic background or country of origin? It seems like you should be able to ask anyone this question; it just seems rude when that person is different from you. Do you know what I mean?*

*WHy Ask That Rude qUestion*

Dear WHATRU,

I like the subtle sign-off!

Here’s the thing, I think you nailed it. If your intention is to be mean, then don’t ask it. If your intention is to be friendly and to make a connection, then go ahead and ask it! I always ask cabbies where they come from, and then I get to learn about their countries. I have never experienced someone who doesn’t want to talk to me about their home country, and I’ve made quite a few friends. I’ve been invited to so many countries for visits, and that is always so incredibly generous and sweet! People are amazing.

Of course, some people just don’t do this kind of small-talk, and I get that too. It’s not for everyone. But it’s super fun for us extroverts.

Aunt Pythia

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*Dear Aunt Pythia,*

*First off, you’re blog is both entertaining and informative, and you’ve found the sweet spot combination of the two that makes it addictive.*

*I find your work with the Lede program at Columbia fascinating and relevant to the growing, amorphous “big data” movement. I am a frequent visitor of websites such as Fivethirtyeight, which Nate Silver has rebranded as a news source that derives its stories from statistics and big data analytics. Even other sources, such as The Atlantic, have begun to follow suit and incorporate large statistical analyses into some of their stories. This experiment of basing our news stories on statistics brings hope that we can move closer to the ideal of an unbiased account.*

*In light of this new format (and your school), what sources do you consider the best? Are there any that you visit to get an insightful statistical perspective on the news. Or do you side with the criticism that many of these sites fuel a sensationalist, biased view of the world intended to spawn viral stories?*

*Will we ever find the right place for statistics in the news?*

*Considering unbiased reality in our ubiquitous (news)stories*

Dear Curious,

Holy crap, nice sign-off. And thanks for being addicted to mathbabe! All my evil plans are working. Time to start on the *next phase*… moo-hooo-hahahahahaha.

OK, so here’s the thing. We will never have unbiased accounts. Never. At the very least we will have bias in the way that data is collected.

What I’ve spent the summer talking to my students about is getting used to the fact that there will always be bias, and how we therefore do our best to be at least somewhat aware of them, and try very hard not to obscure them. Transparency is the new objectivity!

This is of course disappointing to people who want there to be “one truth,” but that’s how science is. After a while we get used to the disappointment and we can all appreciate some really good signal/noise ratios.

As for the right place for statistics in the news, I think we’re figuring that out right now, and I’m excited to be part of it. And holy shit, have you seen the new ProPublica work on the Louisiana coast? Those guys are killing it.

Love,

Aunt Pythia

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

[On visualization] I don’t have it in front of me, but the biography “The Unreal Life of Oscar Zariski” includes an argument he had with Chevalley.

Zariski: But sure when someone says “plane curve”, you must see something!

Chevalley: I do! I see this: p(x,y) = 0.

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Nice!

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I think, “You have a really cool accent, where’s that from?” is a much better way to open the discussion of language and nationality than, “Where are *you* from?” And personally I have an extra excuse for that one because I can lead with, “So I studied linguistics in college, and I’m still into phonology…”

In any case, I think people are much less likely to take offense at the sort of language history question, than in questioning where they themselves are “from”, which is a matter of identity.

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Also, if you ask someone where they’re from, and they say (for example) “Iowa”, don’t then follow up with “No, I mean, where are you really from? Like, where are your parents

from?”

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Regarding Visualization, this is what defeated me in my pursuit of mathematics. 18.902 and Prof Munkres kicked my ass, and Algebra beyond the basics of group theory lost its beauty when it turned from things I could see and appreciate to things I could prove by stringing theorems together but not appreciate.

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Concerning the loss of land in Louisiana, how things change! At one time silt from the Mississippi River was being deposited at its mouth at such a rate that, Mark Twain once wrote that if it continued, there would be a land bridge between New Orleans and Cuba in 150 years. (Twain was cautioning about extrapolation. How right he was.)

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I am disappointed in myself to say I am awful at math. But, I love problem solving.

And from reading your posts, it would seem obvious, even to the oblivious, that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to mathematics.

Could you give me a few tips on how to improve my math skills?

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