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Aunt Pythia’s advice

May 16, 2015

Dearest Aunt Pythia readers! Do you know what makes Aunt Pythia super happy, blissful beyond belief? Aunt Pythia will tell you the answer to that right now: sweet letters from amazing nerd girls.

As you may or may not know, Aunt Pythia lives with and cares for a veritable brood of nerd boys – three of them, and four if you count her husband – but longs for a maternal role with nerd girls, her absolute favorite people in the world. But it just didn’t work out that way, no it didn’t. And she tried, oh yes.

So, given the reality of the situation, Aunt Pythia did her very best to make do. And make do she has done! In fact, the good news is that she has officially succeeded, as of yesterday, when she received this letter (which the writer has kindly agreed to allow me to publish):

Hi Mathbabe,

I just wanted to send you a fangirly email saying THANK YOU for publishing your blog. I’m going back to university for computer science after deciding years ago in high school that I just “wasn’t a math person,” and it’s been so reassuring and inspiring and FUN to read your blog and realize that …

a) I’m not the only person who feels inadequate sometimes!

b) It’s okay to study math even if you’re a little slow so long as you still like doing math!

c) It’s possible to study topics like math and computer science with a social justice angle and engagement with the world around me! (Sometimes it all seems so abstract and money-grubbing, you know?)

Anyway you rock. Whenever I feel down in my first-year calculus class, I check out your blog and feel good about my life again. You are a great role model.

Seriously, people, this is the stuff. It’s awesome.

Hey, and here’s the thing, Mathbabe a.k.a. Aunt Pythia has just started. She’s raring to go, in fact. So please, after enjoying today’s column:

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all 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,

Do you have a position on trigger warnings in higher education?

The issue seems to have provoked a lot of controversy lately, and the controversy seems to have fallen along partisan lines. The argument on the left is that trigger warnings are a way to support the diversity of identities and experiences in the classroom and they are just as innocuous as movie ratings or “slippery when wet” signs. The argument on the right is that trigger warnings infantilize students and potentially have a chilling effect on open discussion in the classroom.

My opinion is that it is polite to warn someone before showing them disturbing images in any context, including and especially the classroom, but I am rather nervous about formal university policies which require trigger warnings or recommend the removal of triggering material. What do you think?

To Resist Image Gore? or Guarantee Everything Revealed?


I remember being in high school. I think it was my junior year, and in social studies we were reading the Greek myths. It seemed like every other story was about an earth woman who was super attractive, was raped by a god, and then punished for her seductive powers by the god’s jealous wife. I kept on getting outraged and stuck on this idea that women could be punished for being attractive and even for being raped.

Here’s the thing, though. I had a good teacher that year, who allowed me to declare my dismay at the story. We had a discussion in class about how morals change with culture. We talked about blaming victims and the inequity of those stories, from our perspectives. We even talked about the nature of human existence and desires, and of course the nature of godliness, and how that might have or might not have changed since the Greeks. Or at least that’s how I remember it. In other words, what started out as shocking became a learning experience.

I feel like my kids, when they become juniors in high school, might not get shown this stuff at all, depending on who the teacher is and what the climate is. That would be a shame. I think I benefitted a lot from that discussion, especially since I can still remember it, and especially because it was the first time I can remember examining brutality through the lens of intellectual inquiry. So I’m a firm “no” on removing material that would have a theoretical trigger warning on it, at least by the time they’re 15.

As for actual trigger warnings, I’m ambivalent. On the one hand I like the idea of girding people for oncoming tough moments, especially if signals people to pay more attention. On the other hand, I feel like sometimes they wouldn’t help, because the outrage is there whether or not you’ve mentally prepared, and trigger warnings might serve as a way for people to opt out of being engaged.

But my main problem with trigger warnings would be if they were seen as a replacement for the discussion of what’s so fucked up about punishing rape victims, or whatever it is. The point is that, as learners, we each must consume and metabolize the things we read, and a well-led discussion is when that all happens. It’s critical we don’t replace that with a tepid catch-all phrase that renders our rage unarticulated.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a heterosexual male, and I’m facing a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, I would like to consider myself a feminist, or at least sympathetic to feminism (perhaps one must engage in public activism to earn the title “feminist”). On the other hand (sometimes literally), I like porn.

Of course these two sensibilities are in tension because the pornography market is overall one of the most hyper-masculine, patriarchal, and misogynistic industries on the planet. And the problem is not limited to the product – porn actresses are systematically mistreated and underpaid, and having appeared in porn is a scarlet letter which can follow you around for the rest of your life.

One step which I took a long time ago was to never pay for porn or click on advertisements so that I could claim to have never directly supported the industry. It turns out that limiting yourself to only free porn is not much of a limitation at all, but I wonder if this is really as much of a stand as I make it out to be. Also, it doesn’t address the rather idiotic standards of content that seem to be rather universal in the industry. Sometimes on a Friday night all I want is to get drunk and relive the amazing sex I had with my ex-girlfriend, but this sex did not involve her wearing boots the whole time or me ejaculating on her face at the end.

This is turning into a bit of a rant, so let me cut to my actual question. Is there such a thing as ethical porn, and if so where does one find it? More generally, is it possible to be a consumer of porn without participating in offensive industry practices?

People Of Responsible Nudity, Never Overly Tormented Sexually; Can One Remedy Needs?


So, you’re not alone. Lots of people look at porn, and many of them want to feel like good people too. So what steps can you take? I’m afraid I have to start out by saying that, by refusing to pay, you might have done the opposite of what you should have been doing.

For example, take a look at the advice described here for ethical porn consumption:

  1. Stick with porn from big brands, who have higher standards for their actors. You will have to pay for this.
  2. Stick with performers you know and who control their careers and have their own websites.
  3. In fact, pay for their content directly from their websites, and don’t watch pirated versions on YouPorn.
  4. Finally, if you want alternatives, find home-made sexy time videos and pay for them. This sounds harder to validate.

Another couple of ideas: watch porn cartoons, where there’s no real people, or watch content from kink.com, where they interview the actors and you can feel somewhat relieved (but perhaps not entirely) that the stuff they just did was not coercive.

Here’s Aunt Pythia’s feelings about porn, that for the most part turns her off, and this is even ignoring the coercive and seedy sides of it, in a way. Very very very little of it concerns the woman’s pleasure. In fact there’s quite a bit of it, in her statistical sampling, that concerns blowjobs, or anal sex, or what have you, that is almost entirely not directly stimulative for the female partner (Deep Throat’s premise notwithstanding). On top of that, lots of it has embarrassingly unconvincing grunts and moans coming from the woman. Horrible.

It’s almost like the viewer is being trained to ignore what woman actually want in bed. For that reason alone she thinks it’s bad news for men, especially young men who don’t know what to expect with a real live woman.

I feel like there is a niche out there for this stuff, and maybe that’s what the “home-made videos” are all about, where the people involved actually know and enjoy each other’s naked body, and they aren’t ashamed, and both of them have a great time. I’m pretty sure it will cost money though, and that’s fine.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What skills might I need to be a credible candidate for a big data job? I just applied for one, although I seem to be missing a lot of what they asked. I program in Python, Java, Smalltalk, and Clojure. I could probably do Jython, as well, as there is a market for it, seemingly. There are groups in the Dallas area that are using NoSql databases, MySQL, Hadoop, Ruby on Rails, and Python. I found this opportunity by searching with Python. I think that they want Python and Django experience, while I only have Python right now.

Lost in Space

Dear LiS,

I’m not sure what kind of “big data job” you’re referring to. As an engineer? As a data scientist?

The thing is, you’ve listed programming languages, but I think the main thing people are looking for is problem solving experience and ability. Languages are the medium through which you formalize your solutions to problems, but they are only that; the main obstacle to most data questions is thoughtful approaches. And the way you develop them is by having lots of experience in knowing how to define and refine questions using data, how to measure and interpret signals, which algorithms do what, and so on. What language you’re using isn’t irrelevant, but it’s not the first thing I’d be talking about.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I was talking to a fellow academic about the under-representation of women in some areas of academia. He started with the typical “there is no sexism in academia, there might have been, but all those professors are about to retire.” I have arguments for this, like all the studies showing that women are judged harder than men with the exact same CV. But before I could respond, he continued with “and besides, we all know that women like babies and fluffy things more than hard math. By the way, do you want to go on a date with me?”.

Is there any possible response other than punching him in the face?

Female Mathematician

Dear FM,

Violence doesn’t solve anything! Or rather, why do with violence what can be accomplished much more easily with words?

I would suggest the following words in this scenario:

Hahahahahahaha! Oh my god you really got me there! For a moment you had me convinced that you really were the most horrifying asshole ever, and then to top it off, asking me out like that! What a HOOT!

Seriously, do you do stand-up? Is this your persona? It’s dead on.

Oh wait, were you kidding? You weren’t? You actually think that stuff? And you think that, in any universe, that would be attractive to women? How bizarre. I’m afraid I have to leave, I’m late for a meeting of women in math, where we discuss the cool math we’re doing, and afterwards we have pizza and gossip about conversations like this one.

Seriously, it takes some courage, but be direct. Tell the guy – through humor, if it helps – that this attitude is a direct obstacle for him getting what he wants. Make him reevaluate what he’s trying to achieve. If you punch him, it becomes all about you, thus defeating the purpose.

And good luck!

Aunt Pythia


People, people! Aunt Pythia loves you so much. And she knows that you love her. She feels the love. She really really does.

Well, here’s your chance to spread your Aunt Pythia love to the world! Please ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Christina Sormani
    May 16, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Dear FM,

    When someone tells me how the sexist men are all about to retire, I keep in mind this person is not necessarily a jerk just somewhat blind. So I tell him specific anecdotes in which specific very sexist or explicitly sexual statements were made to me by young men.

    Then I throw in an anecdote or two where women were sexist to me. I add the latter because it half the time I am having this discussion with a young woman and they need to be aware of their own possible bias against women. It never hurts for a man to hear women can be a problem as well since it takes away the instictive need to defend a man’s statement as not really being what he meant.

    Now it can be difficult to get some people to believe sexist anecdotes, so I carry around a few screencaps of sexist things said to me. I show one of those as well if I see the person is dubious.

    A completely different take of course is to point out that many feminist men are retiring along with sexist men and that we are losing some of our strongest supporters. Nirenberg and Lax are retired now and they were two of the great men that supported women in mathematics.


    • May 16, 2015 at 10:02 pm

      Professor Sormani, thank you for introducing a non-mathematician to the biographies of Nirenberg and Lax. I didn’t find anything on the web regarding their support for women. I assume you know/knew them personally at Courant. Would you be willing to share more?


  2. May 17, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Porn-not-scorn — and others! — might check out the feminist porn awards for ideas on what to watch: http://www.feministpornawards.com


  3. May 17, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    Ha. Disagree. This stuff happens all the time. They always sound like a parody.


    • Ansgar
      May 18, 2015 at 8:47 am

      I was considering posting this as a questions (as it is putting me off a bit about a career in academia), but there seems to be a bit of a bias in favour of women, at least according to this study [1] which went round the media a few weeks ago.

      [1] http://www.pnas.org/content/112/17/5360.abstract


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