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Aunt Pythia’s advice

November 22, 2014

Greetings, friends! I’ve missed you all!

Since returning from her travels, Aunt Pythia has been continuously marveling in the wonders of flannel and wool, and has decided to knit up something along these Celtic lines:

Is that not gorgeous?

Is that not gorgeous? I love the tangled-upedness of the center. And, of course, the doubly rainbow-ic aspects.

Here’s the thing, though: the pattern comes from the excellent book Celtic Charted Designs that Aunt Pythia is absolutely sure she has somewhere in her house, but can’t find. in fact she’s spent the good part of the morning searching her house. So if the column is a wee bit short and/or frustrated today, you’ll know why.

On to business! Aunt Pythia has lots of questions to answer, given that she was away last week, and she’s eager to get through some. But before she forgets,

please think of something Celtic

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,

What are your thoughts on this 401k article

Another Potential Pass At Legalizing Longterm Investments Not Going (well)


Wow, your sign off is longer than the body of you letter. Well done. OK so let me quote the heart of the problem fingered in the article:

Millions of people are clearly not using 401(k) plans as retirement accounts at all, and it’s a threat to their financial health.

I’d phrase it differently, namely:

In this day and age, working people need all their money, and 401(k) plans have proven to be saving strategies which are only realistic for well-off people, which entirely misses the point of how to deal with the older middle class in our country. Instead of relying on such wishful thinking, we should scrap the whole system, which by the way only serves to expand Wall Street’s power and give tax breaks to the rich, and we should instead expand Social Security.


Aunt Pythia


My Dearest Aunt Pythia,

In mid-90’s I completed class work on an MA in Applied Economics/Econometrics at a state school in California. Stupidly did not complete thesis (things got busy on political campaigns and such, and never got back to it). Like many I fell in love with economics, public policy, and their interrelations.

Now, many years later, my econometric/data/statistical modeling skills have aged with me and have become lost from my mind.

My first question is: What would you recommend as a refresher of data skills? I’m certain I don’t need to redo all I’ve done before- the skills are there but need to be refreshed and awakened (I assume/hope).

My second question is: Assuming the skills can be reawakened, what is my fastest and least costly method to enter data work? For programming many people create apps or small programs to be able to show code samples to prospective employers. Is there something analogous in data work? Should I build a model of aggregate demand changes from quantitative easing/M2 changes and shrinking consumer credit (from institutional rule changes) and post it online to show skills? I’ve also been looking at the data science certificate from Coursera/Johns Hopkins, but don’t know that it would matter on a resume. My old university requires restart for the old M.S. (which I understand), so should I pursue a new M.S. in current state school (UMUC has a Masters Data Analytics, which I think I would enjoy anyway, but is pretty pricy).

Anyway, hoping you, my dear Aunt, will have some advice for a data enthusiast with dusty data skills to freshen skills and move into analysis. Oh, I should mention that I am taking a lot of computer programming classes lately to get skills in that area as well.

Dusty Skills

Dear Dusty Skills,

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but the very first thing you need to do when applying for any data job is to use a spell-checker. I must have corrected 5 words in your letter.

Next, although I agree that a Coursera certificate might not be considered all that important, the skills you hopefully acquire with such a certificate would be. And yes, I do suggest you build something with your skills, although tackling QE seems both onerous and unlikely. I’d do something less abstract if I were you, and set up a website portfolio so everyone can see your mad skillz. Oh, and you might want to take a look at my book, Doing Data Science, although you might be past that stuff already.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

I’m a father whose daughter is applying to colleges. I also work at a college, as does my wife. And like many employees in academia, I’ve been following with horror the reports of college rape: the under-reporting, the Judicial review boards, the administrators eager to downplay the problem, etc.

As a father the horror easily spills over into terror. I want my daughter to grow into the challenges of living away from home; I want her to learn in a enlightening, and encouraging environment; and I want her to have fun. I also want her to be safe.

I am outraged at the clueless administration officials and public safety officers who say “girls should not go to parties, or drink,” all the while wanting to scream at my daughter “don’t go to parties or drink.”

How can I have a meaningful conversation about going off to college, learning, having fun, but be safe, without sounding like *those* administrators?

Worried In Academia


Dear Worried,

I went to college in the early 1990’s at UC Berkeley. My first year there was the scene of multiple Gulf War protests, and about 3 or 4 street riots, streaming by my dorm near Telegraph Ave, during which me and my two roommates didn’t dare leave our room. In my sophomore year we heard the Rodney King verdict and it was chaos in the streets for a few days.

I guess what I’m saying is that, due to the obviously volatile and threatening mood of the campus and neighboring towns back then, I was always on alert, and defensive. All of my friends took self-defense classes, and I carried around pepper spray, in my right hand, and my keys in my left, whenever I walked home at night. I biked places so I could get away more quickly. It was my assumption that I would need to protect myself and that there were people who would hurt me if I didn’t. I’m not saying there weren’t people who drank too much and got themselves vulnerable – in fact while I was there, there were multiple burning deaths in fraternities that did crazy things with couches – but that I personally would never have been involved with such stuff. For that matter there was a lot of campus rapes, which we knew about, and the police knew about, and kept us going to our self-defense classes.

Nowadays, we have a very different notion, and also a different reality, which is mostly a good thing, but has weird consequences. One of them is a sense that colleges are safe places, which they most certainly are not. College administrations have come a long way on marketing their campuses as attractive and safe, but it’s just a marketing thing, and it sends confusing and deeply mixed messages to parents and kids, which pisses me off. At the end of the day, when you go to college, you are an adult, and you need to be responsible for your safety, which means not getting out of hand, and keeping trustworthy friends close to you to make sure you don’t, and to make sure they don’t.

So, and I know this is a tough issue, but my advice is to tell your daughter to learn to size up the energy of a party, and see if dangerous things are happening, and to have a group of friends at all times that are looking out for you, and who you are looking out for, and to take self-defense classes, and to carry mace or at least a siren for when you travel alone at night.

Also, and this is actually the most important piece of advice: get your daughter to drink with you a few times, before she goes to college, so she’ll know what it feels like to have too much. The most educational night of my life was a night in the summer before college, when my dad got me and my friend Becky puking drunk. I never let that happen again, because I knew when I’d had too much. I think far too many kids get to college never having been allowed to go overboard with drinking, so they do it for the first time with strangers. Bad idea!

One last thing. I think that in the next couple of decades, the police will learn how to adequately and sensitively deal with rapes, and when that happens we won’t need to worry as much about campus police forces, which are totally inadequate and rife with conflicts of interest. But obviously you don’t have two decades to wait for that to happen, since your daughters are going to college now. Plus, I may be just being unrealistic about the progress we could make.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I keep hearing about how rampant sexism is in STEM fields, particularly in tech workplaces, where I can see myself heading toward after college. It’s really discouraging, especially since I think I experience some sort of sexism in my classes here in college (in computer science way more than in math), and even worse, I can’t seem to speak up because this kind of sexism is really subtle (i.e. a guy got angry with me for his incompetence with a certain technology. I would’ve spoke up but the assignment was worth so little.)

These hurtful incidences just build up over time, and whenever I vent to my friends, some “brush it off” as it not being serious. My parents told me that what I experience here in college won’t be any different in the workplace.

So as I search for summer internships, I carry this cloud of insecurity and doubt. Should I go forward? What’s the point? Breaking gender barriers sounds great, but my God, there are so many women out there who choose to leave because the barrier is so high and strong. I can easily see myself leaving the tech industry because its stubborn lack of support toward women and its more harmful PR farces showing that they do “support women.” Is it ever worth it? How do I reconcile with this?

Unsure of the future

Dear Unsure,

My motto is, celebrate the victories and ignore the defeats. Where by “victories” we mean “getting a computer program to work” and by “defeats” we mean “some insecure guy took out his frustration on me because I’ve got boobs.”

In other words, don’t think about yourself or your actions as A Woman In STEM. Instead, think about what your personal goals are, and what interests you, and what you’d like to learn about or accomplish. Make it an internal conversation about your wants and needs and passions, rather than an external conversation about how you look to other people. And if your internal voice is telling you to leave STEM, then by all means do it, but if not, don’t let those fuckers get you down. Do it because it’s cool and you love it, not because some assholes do or do not have an agenda for you or an ego riding on what and how you do things. Separate the two issues and it will help, because math and computer science are really cool.

And because it’s not always possible to totally ignore the defeats, I’d also encourage you to find better friends who will let you vent and will vent along with you. What’s up with them?!

Good luck, for reals! Keep me posted!

Aunt Pythia


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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. alex
    November 23, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    To worried in academia: maybe have her read the following recent rolling stones article that has gone viral. and i would avoid going to late night fraternity parties. nothing good happens there.



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