Aunt Pythia’s advice
Time passes quickly, my friends. It seems like only yesterday that Aunt Pythia was answering really long questions, and today her questions seem to be extra short. Last week it was cold outside – freezing! – but this week it is warm and snowy (but not for long!). Last week she was knitting a cowl, this week a colorful scarf. Crazy changes, in other words.
Indeed the only thing that hasn’t changed is an absolute willingness, on the part of Aunt Pythia, to offer up irrelevant and terrible advice to you earnest people. Many apologies, you definitely deserve better, but this is just something Aunt Pythia was born with, there’s nothing for it.
My suggestion for you is to just turn away and stop reading. I mean, how many obscene images must one be subjected to??
Wait, you’re still here? Really? Well, in that case, come on in, enjoy the warmth, get under a hand-knitted blanket, and don’t forget to:
ask Aunt Pythia a question at the bottom of the page!
is it worth saving, or should we just burn it all down and start again?
Sick of Bull Systems
I’m going to assume you’re talking about the financial system. I’m tempted to say “burn it” but there would actually be severe short-term problems caused by there being no financial system. Moreover, it isn’t clear that a new one would be built better than the existing one. I know that sounds disappointingly unrevolutionary, but there it is.
If you are feeling desperate, may I suggest ignoring it and starting a new one. If I had time I would be more active in the public bank movement in this country, which seems like a better alternative to ours and can exist in parallel.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
Have you seen the Celtic Oracle designs? I made a deck but would like additional divination material.
Nice! And flattering to oracles such as myself! Can I make a wee request? More naked people, especially men? Thanks.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I would like to start watching Dr. Who but I’m intimidated by 50+ years of shows. How do you get started?
Dr. Who Ignoramus
Common problem, I sympathize. The truth is, it doesn’t matter much. Let me give you a cheat sheet which should be more than adequate:
- Dr. Who is always a man who talks fast and is incredible smug, although usually in a lovable way.
- He sometimes has a dog named K-9 with him. If he does, you’re watching an earlier show.
- He almost always has a “companion” with him, who is almost always female, mostly young, and sometimes a love interest, although not in earlier shows.
- Sometimes his companion has other companions, who are often there as comedic relief.
That’s about it! Oh, and they travel through time solving problems on earth and on alien planets. So there, now you have no excuse not to watch.
Hello Aunt Pythia,
Not a question, but a thank you for your answer to my previous question. It was helpful, and you are right! College towns are still towns, and as such the occupants must take the usual precautions when going out. I knew this, from personal experience walking home many a late night during grad school. But somehow the father in me did not want to admit it.
After I first wrote, a talk with my daughter segued into a talk about college, academics, academic pressure, and campus safety, and I was once again surprised by how grown up my daughter is. She and her friends are well aware of the risks, and do watch out for each other. And now that she has been accepted at Cornell (we found out last night), we’ll no doubt have these talks again, at which time I will mention Aunt Pythia’s advice.
Thank you once again,
Worried In Academia
Wow, wonderful! I almost never know if my advice actually helps, so this is amazing feedback, thank you for giving it to me!
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I’m in my first year in a Phd program in math. I’ve always been academically successful, especially in math, and this semester is no exception. Although I know it will be difficult and take a lot of hard work, I’m moderately confident that I have the ability to get through my qualifying exams. After all, my aptitude for high stakes testing is what’s gotten me this far.
It’s what comes next that concerns me. Specifically, I’m not at all confident that I have what it takes to actually do research in math. I generally have a good memory (especially in the short term); I’m good at reproducing proofs I’ve seen before and at applying techniques in ways I’m familiar with, but I worry that I’m not an especially creative thinker and also that I coast by via collaborating with others. (I realize that the second concern can be irrational, at least from a coursework perspective, since I do comparably well on exams as on homework, but it’s still in the back of my head.)
(It’s probably also be pertinent to mention that I’m male, and haven’t ever felt invalidated either institutionally or on an individual level with respect to my ability–these concerns are entirely my own.)
I’ve had only two research experiences up until this point. The first I don’t put much weight on, since it was in another field that I quickly realized I was not that interested in (which contributed to my decision a few years ago to focus more on math). The second was a project I worked on with a faculty advisor throughout my last year and a half of undergrad. It was in an area that I was interested in and my advisor was great. However, I often would become consumed with anxiety and overwhelmed to the point that I was unable to get anything done.
Part of it was adjusting to working independently and in an unstructured environment, but even when I was given a list of moderately specific things to do it didn’t necessarily help. Despite having plenty of time available to devote to the project, I would put off working persistently, often getting to the point where I would stay up later and later the hour before my next meeting, becoming more and more panicked but for some reason still incapable of working. By the time I’d snap out of it, it would be so late that I would be too exhausted to really do my best work, and it definitely showed. It was stressful for me, frustrating for my advisor, and (clearly) not really productive mathematically. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to change, week after week!
I felt especially bad for being a disappointment for someone who has done a lot for me and who inspired me to seriously pursue math in the first place. Especially, since to anyone not in my head this all came across as purely poor work habits/laziness–my advisor told me shortly before graduation that I have everything it takes to succeed in grad school, as long as I work hard enough, which was simultaneously affirming and distressing. Part of me also thinks that this was all just garden variety laziness and that if I just had worked harder and focused better it wouldn’t have been an issue.
So I guess my question is, where do I go from here? What can I do to keep this from happening in the future? Do I really have a problem, or is it just a combination of laziness and lack of self-confidence?
Uneasy New Scholar, Upbraiding or Reassurance Essential
First off, amazing sign off. Much appreciated.
Next, thank you so much for asking this question. And, given that you are a highly successful and encouraged male, the issue is nicely isolated: how does doing well on highly structured undergrad work and standardized tests relate to being a good researcher?
The answer is unclear, actually, in general. I mean, I don’t want to panic you, because I actually think math research is a skill you can pick up if you are smart and work hard, but on the other hand, it might not be that easy, especially for you.
Let me put it this way. Theoretically, we want to attract to math research a bunch of people who:
- love math,
- work hard and don’t mind being wrong and can live with not knowing whether they are, and
- are “good at math”, where I’m going to ignore what exactly that means, partly because I don’t want to get drawn into the genius myth discussion and partly because I actually think the first two qualifications are dominant.
But here’s the thing. Instead, we attract to math research, via our post-college applications selection method, people who:
- may love math but may just have been told they’re “good at math” and may not know the difference,
- know how to master a well-defined skill where they get continuous feedback from tests and other people that they are making progress, and
- are probably plenty “good at math.”
So you see, there is likely a mismatch between the first two points.
I’m going to hope, for your sake, that you love math. Because you’ll need it, believe me.
Assuming you do, then you’ll need to spend time on #2, which means you (ironically) need to stop caring about outside measures of progress so you can lose yourself in your work and make progress. Get it? It’s confusing when you first encounter it, and unintuitive, and it might be extra hard for someone who is addicted to external evaluations and encouragement, which honestly it sounds like you are to some extent. Just as an example, you don’t owe your advisor anything except your gratitude. You are doing math for yourself from here on in.
The good news is, it often sucks at first, so don’t think you’ve already failed. You just need to develop new skills. It’s kind of like a muscle you didn’t know you had that you need to make super strong.
I suggest trying it out in short bursts. Find yourself a few hours of time, where you are not urgently needed by some classwork or something, and lose yourself in thought around some mathematical object, with no specific need of a milestone. Play with the math, see what you find, and don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time at the end, even if you feel like you have. It was your time to waste, after all.
Anyhoo, that’s the muscle you will need to develop. Once you get good at it, you can lose yourself for days or weeks at a time and then every now and then stumble on actual progress. You can do it! Start small!
At least that’s how it has always worked for me. Other mathematicians, feel free to chime in if you disagree.
Well, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied! If you could, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.
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