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Aunt Pythia’s advice

March 28, 2015

Dear readers!

Do you know where Aunt Pythia is right now? She’s on a train from Washington D.C., coming home from a very short and very pleasant visit, involving a delicious dinner, an evening talk, and even more delicious desserts.

Not the actual desserts from last night.

Not the actual desserts from last night.


Readers, it needs to be said that not one, not two, but three different times – in the span of 4 hours – someone mentioned to Aunt Pythia that she shouldn’t forget her duties the following morning.

And has she forgotten? No, she hasn’t, and it’s not only because she was reminded so gently and so often last night. No, it’s because Aunt Pythia loves and adores you – worships you, really – and could never forget you. If she doesn’t write it’s because she can’t write. And as Amtrak’s wifi is holding up (so far!), we are all in for a treat. Auntie P knows she is, anyway.

Give it up for trains people, and after that, don’t forget to:

        ask Aunt Pythia a 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,

You have written that sexual compatibility is important in finding an appropriate partner. But how do you ask or find that out when meeting people to consider dating? And when/how/where does when ask the question, “so how many sexual partners have you had?” I guess you have to date a person to find that out, and I know I shouldn’t ask that on the first date, and maybe even 2nd. And if the answer is above say two, how does one end the courtship without making the other person feel bad?

Here’s where I’m coming (hehe) from: I have been using okcupid to select for people that seem sexually compatible based on the questions they answer (e.g How many dates till sex?), but as is par for the course when it comes to online dating (at least for guys like me who are not tall, handsome, and/or rich) it is very hard to get responses (let alone dates) to the tons of (non-sexual) messages of interest I send. (I’ve had about 5 dates over 8 years of online dating). So I’m trying other ways (speed dating, meet ups, friends, and perhaps, math conferences) to meet people.

I am very sexually inexperienced – I am in my mid 30’s and haven’t made it past a 2nd date; I’ve never had a girlfriend; never been kissed (except maybe by my mom), and so on. My answer to the “how many dates till sex” is the “6 or more” option, and I only contact women with that answer. (I can’t fathom going on only 3-5 dates with someone and then having sex with them!) I am not comfortable dating someone with a lot of sexual partners, because I’m scared of STDs. I mean, you can test for some of the major STDs, but for others (e.g HPV, warts) it’s not always clinically practical, and then what about latency period during which microbes not detectable, and so on. In fact, I’d prefer to date a virgin like myself for that reason, but unfortunately that is unlikely to find at my age (apart from religious people; but I don’t like religion and would not get along with them). Also, my mom is a religious sex-negative nutcase (who has made sex shameful for me)- for example she isn’t happy or comfortable that my sister married a guy who had two previous partners; but he has been an awesome husband for the past 5 years.

very inexperienced regarding getting into nooky

Dear virgin,

First thing’s first. The way you figure out whether you are sexually compatible with someone is by having sex with them. And it may be great, or it may be terrible, or it may (and this is the most likely one) be not terrible but not great, in which case you might have to get better at it with that person (or just get better at it, period). Which may not work, even if you try a bunch, in which case you need to find another person and try again.

Conclusion: you might find yourself having sex a few times, maybe even a lot of times, with a few people, or many people, before you find the right person for you.

Secondary conclusion: if you run across someone who has had sex a bunch of times with a bunch of other people, then you should assume that they are doing it right. You should not assume they are an STD waiting to happen.

Unless they are, of course, that is also possible. Make sure they practice safe sex.

Next question: when do you ask someone how many sexual partners they have had? Answer: never. That is never a relevant question, in my book. Why does it matter? Unless you’re dealing with a freaked out virgin who has been convinced to worry about STD’s, there’s really no point in having that conversation.

Next question: how do you end a relationship with someone because they’ve had more sex than you without making them feel bad? I’d have to say, first think about how to have a relationship at all, with a real person, then worry about that. Oh but wait, since you’re never going to ask them how many sexual partners they’ve had, this won’t come up.

Here’s the thing. Once you’ve gone this long without getting laid, it takes on mythical proportions. It doesn’t need to. Sex doesn’t have to be all that mind-blowing or earth-shattering. Or dangerous, either. Sex is just like prolonged hugging, except stickier.

Friend, you have fallen prey – big time – to the most common mistake of online dating, namely using the information that has been disclosed via online dating and assuming it is sufficient to understand whether you could love someone. It is not. In fact, that data is mostly misleading, especially the picture (and here are Aunt Pythia’s alternative questions).

Also, I think you might need to reread your question and think about the role your mother has had in your life. Specifically, with religion and sex. I’m no expert on this stuff (but fuck it, pretending to be is really the whole point of this column), but it looks like, in an effort to keep you on the religious path, your mother has deliberately perverted your expectations about sex. That might work in some contexts, where there’s a village matchmaker pairing off young virgins, but it aint here. We are in a free market in terms of sex, for better or for worse. If you want to know more about that, please read Why Love Hurts, a really excellent book.

My advice: stop thinking about STD’s, start thinking about things that matter long term like whether you want kids, or where you want to live, or how you want to be awesome. Cultivate a reason for a woman to fall in love with you that is better and sexier than fear.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Tia Pythia (summoning my inner Spaniard),

I’m 20 years removed from official education, when I received a B.A. in Math. I worked in an actuarial department for a few years, and then for about 15 years in the IT dept of an accounting firm, where I did some programming, some design, and a lot of higher tier technical support.

I was let go about 18 months ago, and am now applying to a few Masters degree programs in Management Information Systems. I’m also contemplating applying to Data Science Boot Camps (there are a few out there), but they’re all in the $15,000 range. I’m skeptical about spending that on a program which doesn’t result in an actual degree, but I am curious to get your opinion on such technical boot camps.

Trying to turn the circular corner of my career

Dear Trying,

Yeah, I have no idea. I thought of starting one of those boot camps myself out here in New York, but then I realized the cost would be pretty steep to make it work, and in particular the very people who I’d want to attract wouldn’t have the cash, because the point of it would be to train them into shape to get the job.

That said, if they are really devoted to data, they should have data on how well their graduates do in the job market.

Also, getting a masters degree sounds good, but only if the skills it will teach you are up-to-date and will get you a job afterwards. If I were you I’d compare the curriculum to the stuff listed on LinkedIn as required knowledge for the jobs you want.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I want to support female mathematicians, and make sure they feel comfortable and welcome at conferences. And I make sure I my encourage female students and call on them and that I don’t make comments to put them down and so on.

Ok, now that we got that out of the way. I’m a single guy in my mid 30s (never had a girlfriend despite wanting one). Is it inappropriate to go to math conferences with hopes of finding love? (My mom suggests I do this, but I think my mom is clueless; she is not in math).

My question again is, is it appropriate to indicate romantic interest to a female mathematician I meet at a conference, and if so how? Typically I won’t know whether or not she is single (e.g she may not be wearing any obvious wedding ring) so then how should I go about figuring out (or asking) if she has a boyfriend? Is it appropriate to ask “Do you have a boyfriend?” And to be clear I’m not interested in a one-night stand, but a loving relationship between one man and one woman, as the holy bible requires (I actually can’t stand religion, just added that facetiously because I support gay rights).

Do you have a strategy for how I should go about this goal? Should I study her mathematical work (which I likely would be interested in, regardless of my interest in her) before the conference, and then use that to begin a mathematical conversation with her, and perhaps even a mathematical collaboration with her (which I would enjoy, even if there was no reciprocal romantic interest on her part)? Given my lack of past success with women, I am not confident that she will have any romantic interest in me, which may lead to great awkwardness.

Should I feel ashamed for posing such a question (to Aunt Pythia)? I get the sense (based on some past Aunt Pythia column comments) that going to conferences in part to meet women interested in math might offend some feminists (but if I was gay, my question would be about meeting men). And I wonder how is it some mathematicians are in relationships with other mathematicians whom they met “at work” (e.g in grad school, post-doc, professor, etc) – how’d they navigate past the possibility of sexual harassment? I am confused. I long for love, like everyone else does. And I’m sad I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

too sad for acronym

Dear too sad,

Great question. It’s all in the details. You’ve got some good thoughts here, but you’ve also got some stuff that comes across as super creepy. So let’s clean it up a bit.


  • Making friends with people at conferences, men and women.
  • Reading their math beforehand and asking them to discuss it in person, knowing it is almost certainly remaining a professional connection which you actually value.
  • Being open to love if things click.


  • Following around women, glomming on to them, or otherwise making them uncomfortable at a conference. Whatever you do, ask yourself, “would I do this to a man?” and “why don’t I got ahead and do this to a man for a while so I can convince myself and others that I’m not a creep?”
  • Studying up on someone’s math for the sole purpose of enticing them into a “work conversation” so then you can turn it into a date. Ew, totally gross.
  • Acting like a conference is a sexy sexy party. It’s not, although sometimes there are parties at conferences, and sometimes they get sexy. To be on the safe side, assume that the women there are there because they want to talk math and meet mathematicians in a professional way. Just because they’re at a party and drinking doesn’t mean they are open to advances.

If you are unsure of whether your actions are creepy, my suggestion is to ask a man or woman who knows you and likes you and whom you trust is not themselves a creep.

In general, my suggestion is to be nice, and friendly, and invite multiple people to lunch, or join a group of people for lunch, and take the opportunity to engage in a fun conversation with the person sitting next to you. If you’re enjoying the conversation, mention that you’re planning to go to restaurant X tomorrow for lunch, and would they like to join? Stuff like that. Make it easy for them to say no, and to bring friends, and be sure they never feel pressured in any way.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

There is a function that I can run online. There is apparently some Visual Basic code that implements the algorithm. I pay to have access to be able to run the function. I would like to be able to do automated testing of the function, but to do that, I have thought that I need to have my own implementation. The guy behind this has some functions that he gives me a script that explains how they work.

In the case of this one, there isn’t a script, just code that is not publicly available. The function takes as input two three-digit numbers. the output is 12 three-digit numbers. Is there a machine learning approach that I could use to derive the function so that I can test its performance?

Missing Link

Dear Missing Link,

The answer is no, at least with the information you’ve given me. I have no idea how that function is derived, what form it’s in. If I knew it was a polynomial function (or 12), with some kind of well-defined form, then absolutely, I could infer the coefficients using linear algebra. But given that it always transforms a three digit numbers into three digit numbers, it doesn’t sound polynomial.

It might not even be intrinsically integral: maybe it uses cosines and logarithms and at the very end it lops off the digits to the left and right of some three digits. The point is, without more information I simply have no idea how to infer the function. I need more, and so do you.

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

I’m interested in your take on the recent New York Times op-ed piece, Searching for Sex.

It seems to me that there are a lot of assumptions contained in the analysis. But I’m writing to ask for your view, not to share mine. How correct do you think his claims are? Should we care about them?

Person seeking every unique dictum on this one recently seen opinion report

Dear Pseudotorsor,

Fantastic sign-off.

You know, I kind of love it when statistics point out how much people lie about sex. It’s one of my favorite things. What I especially like about the condom story in that article is how it’s obvious that both men and women exaggerate how often they’re having sex, at least with condoms. I say, awesome! I love how people always think they’re porn stars. And although men lie more, it’s cool that women also lie.

Here’s the thing, though. Do we really want to be corrected? I mean, given that I haven’t had nearly as much sex as I wish I had, can’t you data people just leave me alone to my imagined life? Does it do any good, really, to think about just how many weeks go by that are utterly dry?

My theory as to why people lie: when you have sex with a person, it creates a temporary (but fantastic!) amnesiatic effect, where you can’t remember what you were mad about, what was wrong in the world, or how long it had been before that moment that you last had sex. It’s also an amazing hangover cure.

So your brain does this thing, in response, whereby it guesstimates that you must have been having sex pretty regularly, i.e. about once a week. And that brain fart lasts for like 4 weeks. Thus the bias.

My point is, it’s a good bias to have, in general, for most people. In fact (and somewhat ironically!) only actual porn stars are suffering from too little perceived sex. Go us! Go imaginary sex!

In other words, I think the author is wrong to ask, why do we have so little sex? I think we instead should be asking, how can we be unreasonably happy about other things just like we are unreasonably happy about our sex lives?

Also, I agree that the one thing the article didn’t discuss sufficiently is the question of selection bias. I mean, I have never asked google about my vagina, ever. I suspect there are quite a few people who don’t ask google about their vaginas. So instead of saying people are insecure about their smelly particulars, I think we might be tempted to conclude that insecure people ask google about their insecurities.

Auntie P


Congratulations, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied, you could have made progress on that project instead.

But as long as you’re already here, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Lon
    March 28, 2015 at 10:24 am

    Am I alone in rejecting, in its entirety, an article that makes use of Google searches to support an argument? I don’t see how anyone can accept these as providing any evidence whatsoever, for anything, except that, at some point, some entity (boy, girl, java-enabled toaster oven) typed certain phrases into an interface that found it’s way to god–sorry–google.


  2. lontjr
    March 28, 2015 at 10:25 am

    /it’s/its/ *sigh*


    • msobel
      March 28, 2015 at 10:52 am

      Alternatively interpretation. ” typed certain phrases into an interface that found it is a way to god, sorry, google.”


      • lontjr
        March 30, 2015 at 7:41 am

        Superior interpretation. I’m stealing it forever. Thanks/Lon

        I also never liked “typed” … doesn’t fit with the automation part. But “sent” somehow doesn’t make it either.


    • Mel
      March 31, 2015 at 1:17 pm

      Huh? “It is entirety”, like I am legend, or Buckminster Fuller seems to be a verb?


  3. Auros
    March 28, 2015 at 9:58 pm

    “when do you ask someone how many sexual partners they have had? Answer: never.”

    I don’t think that I’d ask somebody’s “number” straight-out — for one thing, I don’t expect the kind of people I hang out with to even know that figure, or at least not without sitting down and going over their history and deciding what counts. OTOH, if I’m flirting with somebody, getting to know them, sharing stories, I expect to hear some of their exes come up, at least the ones that were serious, and get some light description. If you hate all your exes and either badmouth them or write them out of your history, that says to me that there’s probably something toxic about how you interact with romantic partners.

    Anyways, this dude needs to go read Scarleteen, or something. (I think also there was an old Dan Savage column dealing with a person who was that paranoid about STDs; I’m failing to find it via Google, sadly…) If he’s concerned, he ought to plan on starting slow (like, hands only) — but he ought to plan on that anyways, just to ease into things and learn about how things work… And he should talk with people about their safe sex practices. If they seem eager to do unsafe things with him — like start screwing without condoms, on their first go ’round in the sack — he should assume that means they probably do unsafe things with other people and bail. But plenty of people have significantly more than two partners — even an order of magnitude more — and never catch anything.


  4. March 29, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    Question about the questions:

    We have two questions of the form “I’m in my mid-30s and don’t have much relationship experience. How do I negotiate the Catch-22 that people my age need relationship experience to get into relationships (whether it’s because people prefer up front to have relationships with people with experience, or people who don’t have much relationship experience aren’t good at it and hence their relationships tend to fall apart quickly)?”

    I have a strong mental image that these kinds of questions come only from men. Why is this? Possibilities include:

    1) I’m wrong, and mid-30s (or older) women in this situation ask this question as well.

    2) Women are much less likely to end up in this position (for example because the distribution of number of partners has much flatter for heterosexual men than heterosexual women).

    3) The Catch-22 is somehow not as significant for women.

    4) Women in this kind of situation are generally happier with not having relationships.

    5) Women in this position are more scared to ask about this.

    Any ideas?


    • Auros
      March 30, 2015 at 5:14 pm

      I don’t feel like I hear from women any less of “I want a life partner”. But I do definitely hear less of “I have zero experience at all and can’t find anyone to get some with”.

      I have the sense that it is fairly easy for a woman — even one who would be considered by conventional fashion-mag standards to be not particularly attractive — to find somebody to try things out with, if she’s willing to lower her standards somewhat — and not by all that much. You can have a fling with somebody who seems basically nice and considerate, even if their life goals don’t line up with yours, or the stuff they like to do outside the bedroom bores you to tears, or whatever. This at least provides an opportunity to learn a bit about what it feels like to be in a physical relationship with somebody, and the actual mechanics of sex. I think, as well, that on average men don’t “mark off” for being inexperienced by as much, which may partly be that men are culturally trained to be willing to bang anything that moves at least once, but also may have a rational element — guys almost invariably arrive at sexual experience having learned how to pleasure themselves, and even with an inexperienced partner, if she’s willing to hold a position that works for them for a while, they’ll likely be able to get off. Whereas for a woman, dealing with a guy’s first fumbling attempts at sex is likely to be at least awkward, and occasionally even painful.

      On the flip side, if you’re a guy who is perceived as low quality — and especially if you read as creepy / risky — you may just find no takers at all, for a very long time. The thing is, it is possible to learn how to behave in a manner that is not creepy, and will not set off people’s sense that their physical safety might be at risk. Unfortunately, most people offering to teach that kind of skill, are actually making things worse. In many cases, they’re reinforcing ideas that you actually need to shed / deprogram.

      I had a conversation with an acquaintance the other day, in which it came up that she’d been on a date with a guy who she thought was cute, who had seemed smart and charming in their initial introduction, and fine for the first hour or so of their date. But after he’d had a couple drinks, he somehow meandered his way into talking about how a feminist media conspiracy was brainwashing women into thinking they wanted betas, and men into being betas, when really women were happier with dominant alphas (implied: like him). Because Evo Psycho Mumbo Jumbo. At which point she was like: Noooooope! A guy who thinks that his objects-of-lust all want to be sexually dominated, and that objections to such domination represent false-consciousness brainwashing, is a rapist-in-waiting.

      On the bright side, she said she’d taken from the experience that getting a guy a bit drunk in a public place on a first date might be a nice test to see if he has whackadoo ideas in his head that he’s civilized enough to shut up about while sober.


    • dotkaye
      March 31, 2015 at 7:53 pm

      thank you for the book reference (‘Why Love Hurts’), that looks fascinating. As I grow older and the question of relationships becomes purely historical/academic for me, I find both regret and curiosity grow stronger. It’s a puzzle I never solved nor even found the first lemma on the way to solving. Now that it isn’t so painful to think about, I am taking another run at understanding the failure modes.

      Other data on this as opposed to Google search data is available from the General Social Survey. My first attempts at accessing that data fell at the hurdle of the statistical challenges of its various UIs. A summary of an older data set from the GSS of year 2000 is here,
      Some day I’d like to trawl through the recent data and see what can be found..


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