Home > Uncategorized > Aunt Pythia and Sister of My Sister’s advice

Aunt Pythia and Sister of My Sister’s advice

August 15, 2015

Dearest Readers,

Oh My God! Holy crap!! I’ve got incredible news for you all. Namely, my best friend, who will be henceforth known as Sister Of My Sister, is here with me today to help dole out incredibly unhelpful, entirely silly, and possibly hurtful advice. Congratulations to all of you for receiving it!!

Before we begin, I need to mention my new hero, the woman who has slept with 3000 men:


Captivating! Is that a pole? What is that pole for?

You can read all about her here, my friends. Tell me in comments how much you love her too. What vim! What vigor! Also high on the my-list-of-favorite-people: this lady.

On with the main event! Readers, remember when I complained last week about running out of questions? Well, you’ve responded, for which I am very grateful. My trust Google Spreadsheet (soon to be the “Alphabet Spreadsheet”) is happily filled in with a dozen or so new questions. But that’s not to say it should stop! Please continue to add to my list, because why? Because it is a real pleasure of my life, which I look forward to all week and I am ever so grateful for it.

So please do a sweet Auntie a good turn and:

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,

I’m on the verge of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, and suddenly I’m wondering whether going to grad school is the right thing to do – there are a few subjects (mostly in Complex Analysis) which I really like, and I definitely will keep reading about them in the future. Thing is, I really don’t know if I have what it takes to do research in math. I don’t know whether I should try going to grad school and drop out if it doesn’t work out, or whether I should just be content with my bachelor’s degree and keep reading Ahlfors in my free time.

Thanks for any reply,

Dear E,

Here’s the thing. We never know whether we have what it takes for anything. At least we who are not crazy narcissistic don’t. So I’d say, if you love something, and if the signals are good that you are capable (i.e. your profs are encouraging), then follow your instincts. It’s a very good sign that you want to read math in your spare time! Go with that.

Or, in the words of my good friend Jordan Ellenberg, do what you’d do if you weren’t insecure.

Sister of My Sister says: go to culinary school.

Aunt Pythia and SoMS


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I find this article disturbing. Here’s an excerpt:

[O]ne of academia’s little-known secrets is that private college admissions are exempt from Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination—a shameful loophole that allows some of the most supposedly progressive campuses in the nation to discriminate against female applicants.

Consider my own alma mater, Brown University. In 2014, 11 percent of men were accepted at Brown versus 7 percent of women, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

Brown is hardly the only, or the worst, offender. At Vassar College, the 34 percent acceptance rate for men was almost twice as high as the 19 percent rate for women. At Columbia University, the acceptance rate was 8 percent for men versus 6 percent for women. At Vanderbilt University, it was 15 percent versus 11 percent. Pomona College: 15 percent versus 10 percent. Williams College: 21 percent versus 18 percent. This bias in private-college admissions is blatant enough that it can’t be long before “gender-blind admissions” becomes the new campus rallying cry.

Colleges won’t say it, but this is happening because elite schools field applications from many more qualified women than men and thus are trying to hold the line against a 60:40 ratio of women to men. Were Brown to accept women and men at the same rate, its undergraduate population would be almost 60 percent women instead of 52 percent—three women for every two men. . . .

Today’s [admissions] officials . . . fear though that if enrollments reach 60 percent women, it will scare off the most sought-after applicants, who generally want gender balance for social reasons. “Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive,” Kenyon College’s dean of admissions, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, wrote in The New York Times in 2006.

Any comments?

Smart Guy

Dear SG,

Interesting. So you’re saying there’s a de facto affirmative action policy for men taking place in elite colleges.

The statistician in me needs to make the following caveats: some of these statistics could be explained away if we found out that high-achieving girls tend to apply to more places than high-achieving boys on average. Then you’d see many of the same girls applying to a bunch of places, for example, and the boys might apply to fewer.

As a thought experiment, say girls apply to twice as many colleges as boys. From the perspective of the college, among their best applicants they see twice as many from girls. Their acceptance rates, even if they had consistent standards across genders, would be lower for girls. Does that make sense?

Also, keep in mind that a college’s acceptance rate isn’t the same thing as kids actually showing up at college. It could be – and we know it is likely true, in fact – that the same kids are being accepted at a bunch of places and then saying no to all but one. Again, we have to be smart about this, which is all a crazy and inflated system. And without being on the admission committee myself, I really don’t know what’s going on.

Having said all that, I don’t know of any statistics that would make us think girls do apply to more places. I conclude that the stats from the article definitely warrants more investigation.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind. Girls, statistically speaking, are better students than boys, but boys tend to do better on SAT’s at the high end. Personally I don’t think this is all that meaningful one way or another, because both “grades” and “SAT scores” are somewhat arbitrary systems of judgement, neither of which are particularly convincing to me of inner intrinsic worth. Even so, it might be partly responsible for college admissions; colleges might care more about SAT scores than about grades.

I guess that’s what it comes down to: how do colleges decide who to accept? What are their acceptance guidelines like, and are they gender specific? I mean, we might find them discussing the “too many girls” situation, or, more likely, we might just find them trying out different processes until they come upon one that results in “a satisfactory student body.”

A cynical person would point out that what colleges really care about is future endowment contributions, and in our sexist society men are more likely to be the contributors to that. I’m not saying it’s not a factor, but I’m not sure it could possibly be that explicit; it’s more likely to be embedded in an algorithm or at least a process, as many such assumptions are. In any case I’d love someone with more experience in the admissions process at an elite school to weigh in.

Sister of My Sister says she believes that our worst suspicions about the college admissions process are true.

Aunt Pythia and SoMS


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Which question that you’ve answered most affected you, and what was the effect?

Curiously Hunting And Obviously Sympathetic


Thanks for the question, it’s brought me great pleasure in thinking back at all the wonderful questions I’ve had the pleasure to answer. I hope it won’t bother you terribly if I admit that my favorite piece of advice wasn’t actually in an Aunt Pythia column at all, but rather was a mathbabe post called How do I know if I’m good enough to go into math?which, come to think of it, I should have referred my friend E above to as well. Hey E, go look at that post!

Here’s why that post affected me. I met the wonderful young person who wrote the question to me, afterwards, and she told me quite earnestly how much it helped her. She’s now a thriving and ambitious math major at an elite school. What a pleasant experience, to be able to encourage someone like that!

Moreover, when I went to visit my math camp earlier this summer, I was told that this note had been shared with quite a few of the participants as a way to ward off annoying and competitive behavior; hopefully it helped, but in any case I was super astonished at how much it is needed.

I guess I’m saying that, this is the piece of advice that is closest to that fantasy you have, that you could get in a time machine and go back to your previous self and say something like, hey self! Don’t worry so much, everything’s going to be okay, and you can go ahead and start feeling good now! Because there’s really no time to lose when it comes to just getting on with your life. And that’s really the best feeling that an inveterate advice giver like myself could possibly feel.

Sister of My Sister says that that post and every other is why mathbabe is her hero.

Aunt Pythia and SoMS


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My wife of 5 years is a lesbian and I’m not a woman. We’ve known this for about 3 years.

As you might imagine this eliminates the kinds of sex that we find convenient to share with other people in most social settings.

We’ve taken to pretending we’re sexually conventional, even to close friends, because we fear that they’d be really awkward about it if we ever let on. Everyone we have told so far has made a point of avoiding the subject, as if they simply don’t know what to say, understandably I suppose. They’ve been supportive and kind, but awkward.

How can we avoid widespread social awkwardness without feeling like we’re deceiving our friends and families?

Accidentally Asexual Humans

Dear AAH,

Why are you two still married? Are there kids? If I’m a friend of yours, and you tell me this, and you don’t have kids, i’d be anything but quiet. I’d say, get the fuck out!

And that holds for anyone who tells me they aren’t getting regular sex from their partner – unless they have a very good reason, like an illness – and they don’t have kids. If they have kids, then fine, make an arrangement with your spouse to get some outside action while you keep a stable household and until the kids are in college. But for an unromantic atheist such as myself, marriages are not simply friendships, they are sexual arrangements. Moreover, to live a full life you want to at least have the option to get action.

You say you’ve been married for 5 years, and for more than half you’re not having sex. Moreover, it doesn’t seem to be ending soon. I just don’t get it. Your friends are too polite and confused to say what I’m saying now: get out, remain friends, and go find someone who can’t resist your manly self. There are plenty of women looking for a good man that would love to enjoy your company.

Sister of My Sister agrees with me wholeheartedly, but suspects there is some other compelling reason you’ve stayed with your wife and would like you to write back and tell us what that is.

Aunt Pythia and SoMS


Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?

Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form for later or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 15, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    Questions as regards the admission rates for men and women:
    1) Can you give a link to the original article?
    2) Smart Guy says that this only applies to private universities. However, many public universities are also maintaining a gender balance among students: 48M :: 52F at Berkeley, 56M::44F at U. Illionois UC; 48M :: 52F at U. Washington, etc. (U. North Carolina is 42M :: 58F, so quite unbalanced.) Are the application ratios different at these schools, or are they also admitting a larger percentage of men than women?
    3) 60 percent of the applications to Brown are from women. They accept 50/50.
    Assuming Brown is typical, then either your conjecture is correct and women on average are applying to more schools, or simply more women apply to college period. In any case, it is not at all clear to me that it is more reasonable to accept an equal percentage of applications received as opposed to having equal numbers of acceptances.


  2. G.
    August 17, 2015 at 9:58 am

    I’m intrigued by AAH – note that they’ve eliminated “the kinds of sex that we find convenient to share with other people”; but that is different from “all sex”. Has the writer and his wife opened their relationship? role-play with different genders? And it what contexts does one have to talk about your sex life with others.

    Anyhow, if AAH and his wife are both happy, good on them!


    • August 17, 2015 at 10:38 am

      You know, that confused me too, but then I saw the sign-off and I went with its implication.


    • dotkaye
      August 17, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      “in what contexts does one have to talk about your sex life with others ?”
      that’s the part which puzzled me.. perhaps I lead a cloistered life but it is not a subject that has come up in my experience. ever. at all.
      I am with SoMS, curious about what compelling reason still binds them in marriage..


  3. kpedro88
    August 29, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    “Today’s [admissions] officials . . . fear though that if enrollments reach 60 percent women, it will scare off the most sought-after applicants, who generally want gender balance for social reasons.”

    I think Smart Guy might want to consider that these “social reasons” actually have some merit. At my undergraduate institution (an engineering school), the gender balance was more like 70% men, 30% women. This is a seriously fucked up situation for everyone involved, and efforts to avoid it should be applauded. As a self-centered high schooler, I remember being upset that MIT “artificially” gender-balanced their admissions. After living through the alternative, I’m now quite convinced that they have the right idea.


  4. September 10, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    Nowadays, in undergraduate admission procedures, *some* liberal-arts colleges discriminate against women, and *some* schools geared towards STEM and engineering discriminate against men. Both kinds of policies have been all but acknowledged – at some places; the former kind of policy was probably made acceptable or palatable by the existence of the latter kind of policy (as well as by the existence of other non-merit criteria, i.e., admission preferences for the children of donors and trustees). Then, as our host says, there is a grey area consisting of many schools in whose case one should not jump to conclusions; an acceptance rate of 6% vs. 8% can be due to many factors.


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