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Aunt Pythia’s advice

December 6, 2014

It’s been a tough week, friends. Aunt Pythia is both excited and anxious for the future of the country. What with the Ferguson situation, and the Eric Garner protests, there’s very little time to knit. I’ve got nothing of my own to show you today, so instead I’ll just post this:

OK now let’s get to your questions! And don’t forget to

ask Aunt Pythia your question 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 the push to eliminate the algebra requirement for college students (see the AMATYC statement on “Alternative Pathways”)? This is different from simply beefing up statistics education, I’ve looked fairly closely at several of these alternative pathways (Quantway and Statway and the Math Lit textbooks of Almy and Mercer) and they are mathematically very weak. This appears to be a cynical ploy to keep pushing students through the (very expensive) process of getting a degree without actually completing worthwhile work.

I think that Algebra is the grammar of mathematics and that it should be a prerequisite for any course in statistics that is at all useful.


Dear ES,

I couldn’t find that statement, so I don’t really know what’s at stake. The problem – or maybe it’s not a problem, because I’ve used it when developing curriculum myself – is that two people probably wouldn’t agree on what “algebra” means.

For example, I was at a talk recently where a woman from Microsoft was advocating a new way of teaching computer science in high school, and she made a point of saying it wouldn’t involve algebra but would introduce students to formalized thinking and, in particular, formal manipulation of symbols. For me, that was a ridiculous statement, because that’s what algebra is. But I say that knowing there are probably a huge number of things being stuffed into an “Algebra” course that have little to do with my definition.

There’s another problem, which is pinpointing exactly what is useful and what isn’t useful for a non-mathematician to understand later in life. It’s a fuzzy issue, and honestly I’m probably someone who would rather see people be able to read, understand, and dissect statistical statements about medical research than solve the quadratic equation from scratch, on the grounds that it’s more important to their actual health and well-being to understand accuracy than to understand square roots, especially of negative numbers.

Not sure that helped, but if you want more explicit opinions, please write back with links.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My wife and I have been married 5 years (no children). Last year she changed jobs. She became friendly with a girl at her new job, “Janet.” Janet has since been over to our house several times and she and my wife have a “girl’s night out” (GNO) once or twice a month.

Last week after another GNO my wife was subdued. The next night after dinner, my wife told me that Janet had made a pass at her. She had turned Janet down but now wanted my permission to pursue Janet.

When I asked if she was suggesting a threesome, she said that she wanted it to be just the two of them. When I asked if that meant I could find a girl on the side, she became angry and said that this was different.

I had no previous indication of my wife’s bisexuality. What should I do?

Not Open to Sharing With Individuals Nor Groups


Nice sign off!

So wait, let me get this straight. Would you have been into a threesome? Would you have been OK with the Janet stuff if you also got to play outside? I mean, I am seeing your sign-off as a signal of unhappiness, but I’m not sure what the flavor of the unhappiness is.

Look, every marriage figures out its own way in these things. The good marriages are the ones that figure out ways that work for them, and the bad marriages are the ones that don’t. As far as I know there is no lasting marriage that never gets tested at all. Contrary to modern opinion, most marriages don’t instantly dissolve when someone has a fling or even an affair. Good marriages take things in stride, at least if things don’t get too intense and both parties actually want things to work out and stay in the marriage.

In other words, there is no absolute answer, there is only the negotiation you come up with with your partner. And the definition of “it’s working” is “it’s working for us.”

So basically, my advice is to not take any advice. But if you want my advice, it would be to spend more time asking why your wife gets to try out Janet and you don’t get to look around as well. It’s not obvious to me why Janet is “different”; after all, she’s a person, and she’s not in your marriage, and as such she’s a potential threat to you, and a potential cause of jealousy. If you are willing to put up with those things, your wife should be too.

Which is not to say your negotiation should end there, where neither of you get to do anything, but that there should be some sense of equity. Otherwise you will feel resentful, and resentment kills relationships.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia:

I am a mom. My daughter is a first year at a women’s college (let’s call it B) affiliated with an Ivy league institution (let’s call it C) in a major metropolitan market.

My daughter has always appeared to have a very strong aptitude for patterns and puzzles. Yet given the nature of our home school district (not good), she probably did not have the quality of math prep that kids at other schools benefited from. In general, she has always been a very good student, though not a extraordinary standardized test taker, i.e. SATs.

She is showing a strong interest in math and computer science. However, the women’s college (B) does not seem to be the place where the MAT and SCI stuff occurs. Instead, the B students are required to go to the neighboring co-ed institution (C) where male students with 800s on their math SATs likely dominate those classes in their potentially intimidating manner.

My question is rather vague: But what is your advice about how I can help her navigate this challenge? I am wondering if it’s not true that many students who would be excellent math students in many environments will be scared away from this one?

(And I know you can’t answer this one but: In an era when B is touting female empowerment and the world is conscious of the need to get women involved in MAT and CompSCI, wouldn’t it be great to see B offer more math and csi?)


Wants a Girl to Code or Do Math

Dear WaGtCoDM,

When I was at Barnard, I started a course called “Introduction to Higher Mathematics” which was exactly addressing the problem that most male math majors came in with lots of experience from high school math camps and math competitions in how to write proofs, but most women interested in math came in just interested and excited about math, but very little background in writing proofs.

The course was a huge success, and was mainly attended by women, although there were men of course, since both Barnard and Columbia classes are open to everyone (except Barnard first year seminars). I wrote about it here, go take a look.

Some good news: the class is still offered. I’d suggest you tell your daughter about it, or about a class like it, if I’m wrong about where she goes to college.

Go nerd girls!!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am in a quandary. My Ph.D. supervisor is a lazy man. Sometimes when I go to him he starts talking to me about non-thesis related topics. Commenting on Politics is his favorite job. We have diametrically opposite ideologies.

Listening to his right wing rants takes a serious toll on my well-being. I am not a very articulate speaker so I do not think I would go very far if I decided to have a political argument with him. I am quite happy if he would discuss only maths with me. I don’t know how to bear his diatribes about morality and meritocracy. I feel like taking a shower every time I come back from visiting his office.

Please help me or I shall have to drop the idea of PhD completely.

Politically Against Thesis Supervisor

Dear PATS,

Get another advisor! I’m sure the other professors in the department know all about this guy and his evasive, lazy, right-wing ways. Go to another professor whose work you admire and whose field you find interesting, and tell him that things are not working out with your current advisor, and ask for advice. She or he They will give you good advice, and if they don’t, go to yet another professor in the department and ask for advice.

This is your life and  your career, you have to advocate for yourself. Don’t give up before you’ve tried everything.

Aunt Pythia


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Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. December 6, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Re: changing advisors… YES!! …timely too, since this week I just re-read this 2-year-old piece on “Grace in Teaching”:

    …it’s a bit redundant and overly long, but the part about changing advisors is early on.


  2. Min
    December 6, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    About algebra for college:

    Piaget estimated that only about 15% (IIRC) of adults could understand formal operations. Perhaps that is an underestimate. However, given the apparent necessity of a college degree to make a reasonable living these days, an algebra requirement seems like asking too much. Besides, concrete operations can take you far. For instance, the Wason task stumps most people when presented formally, but it stumps almost nobody when presented as detecting cheating in a social situation.

    As for understanding statistics that the informed citizen is likely to have to deal with, the use of integers instead of fractions or percentages seems to help people understand and make good decisions.


  3. December 6, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    As a lecturer in the same area, I could have written almost the exact same words as ES. I also interpret basic algebra as precisely the grammar of higher-level math and science (as I write on the board, “Goal: To read and write properly with variables”. ). A few weeks back I wrote a blog article, “Is Statway a Cargo Cult?”, and the issue of abandoning algebra came up at least twice at school this week.


    If Aunt Pythia wanted a concrete example of standard algebra contents, check out the 25-question multiple-choice “Sample A” below. This is what is used throughout all the CUNY schools as a final exam for remedial elementary algebra classes. Note that 80% of incoming students from high school cannot pass something like this, and even after a semester of instruction the failure rate is still about 50% throughout CUNY; or in other words, CUNY community colleges could double their graduation rates overnight if they dropped the basic algebra requirement (so there is an immense incentive to do so, but then the senior colleges with guaranteed admission afterward would suffer). The quadratic formula is outside the scope of this material.


    As one final point, consider that a student only actually has to know *half* of this material in order to be qualified as passing the requirement:



  4. December 6, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    I usually find your advice to be excellent, but I disagree with what you told NOSWING. I mean, it’s true that an affair will not necessarily kill the marriage and that this entire issue can be resolved and even end with everyone happier and the relationship more secure. But it is fraught with peril to take the approach of “equity” or negotiation, because it’s quite likely that the wife does not conceive of her request as being a kind of treat or perk or favor, but rather, as a non-negotiable aspect of her self-image. This is why she is so upset that NOSWING would ask to see a girl on the side: for her, it’s not on the side, but it sounds like he is asking for something just to have fun. If he keeps asking “if you, why not me”, she will probably just get increasingly defensive and hurt. Probably the safest starting point for this discussion is for him to say outright, “I’m confused by this sudden revelation and I’m afraid of an outside relationship damaging ours. I don’t think you should do it now but we have to talk about your sexuality and how we can both be happy.” Treating it as a negotiation is the wrong way to go.


    • December 6, 2014 at 4:23 pm

      Wait what? So he should just say no? I don’t think that is likely to work.


      • December 6, 2014 at 5:42 pm

        I think he should say “no for now”, with the explicit expectation of further discussion. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for him to say “I can’t handle your having a romantic relationship with someone else on such short notice”, which is different from saying “I can’t handle you being bisexual and wanting to explore that”. It’s likely that if she does go ahead and have what sounds like a potentially serious relationship, it *will* damage their marriage, and he should voice that concern.


        • Auros
          December 9, 2014 at 1:26 am

          I think I agree with Ryan in terms of the short-term prospects — opening a relationship should be a long conversation, not a sudden event driven by somebody making a pass. The relationship should be open because both people in it want it to be, not because a third party came along and pried it open.

          That said, there’s something in the way that this particular situation has been presented that strikes me as being kind of a flipped version of the One Penis Policy. One hears a fair number of stories from bi women about dating guys who are fine with having both of them see other women, but get weird about their Hot Bi Babe girlfriends being interested in any other men.

          It sounds like the wife in NOSWING’s story is similarly deploying the gender dichotomy in an unreasonable way. If she gets to see other people, of any kind, including for the purpose of exploring bisexuality / same-sex attraction, she can’t reasonably demand that the open-ness of the relationship be purely one-sided, and she can’t insist that her husband’s interests in other people take the exact same shape as her own. (e.g. She can’t demand that he must, as she did, develop a friendship and have that turn into a Serious Relationship, as opposed to pursuing an occasional short-term fling, with appropriate safety precautions and enough preliminary interaction to screen out crazies.)

          Even if the husband is theoretically open to having a serious conversation about opening up, he made an error in going directly where he did, rather than exploring what his wife actually wanted, in abstract, and comparing it to what he might want out of an open agreement, again, in abstract. But it wasn’t *completely* unreasonable. Really, if Janet is also bi, or even lesbian but doesn’t mind sharing a woman she’s into with that woman’s male partner, maybe having a threesome from time to time would be fine with her. Plenty of completely straight MFM or FMF threesomes happen in the world, with little to no interest between the same-sex participants.

          Of course, if he really means by his sign-off that he wants total closed monogamy, by suggesting otherwise he was being a bit of a dick.

          If NOSWING is reading and *was* seriously considering open-ness, I have a friend who does relationship counseling, including on open-ness issues, who offers a fairly good booklet / primer, which can be found here: http://www.successfulnonmonogamy.com/v1/


  5. Ron
    December 7, 2014 at 3:21 am

    Completely agree about the different definitions of Algebra… Interesting comment about education of formal manipulation. Do you happen to remember the name of the talk, lecturer, or conference?


  6. December 7, 2014 at 4:45 am

    Cathy, Barnard has introduced two new STEM courses for exactly the kind of student mentioned above:


    I will be co-teaching the one taught next semester. The class is limited to 12 and there are about 30 interested so far but there’s an application process with a deadline of December 14. So the student should email me before that is she wants to take it.

    This is just the start, we should be expanding to five or more courses soon, eventually moving towards an applied coding program and perhaps at some point a major. Perhaps we can get you interested in coming back to Barnard?


    • December 7, 2014 at 6:23 am

      Wow, cool! We should talk!


      • December 7, 2014 at 8:58 am

        Hope you can get this information to the Mom whose message is posted above. Also, would be great to have you back and I can’t think of anyone better to direct and teach in the (contemplated) program….


    • December 7, 2014 at 2:08 pm

      Yes, What Rajiv said!!!!


  7. December 7, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    To the Barnard parent, also Barnard is working to develop it’s own Comp Sci depth and the students have created Athena Digital Design: http://www.athenadigitaldesign.org


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