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Aunt Pythia’s advice

August 29, 2015

Readers, did you know Aunt Pythia is a rabid biker? And did you know that the High Bridge just opened for the first time in 40 years? Aunt Pythia is itching to bike all over it as soon as she’s shot this Saturday’s wisdom wad all over your browser.

This is a pic from 1900.

The High Bridge in 1900 connecting Manhattan and the Bronx. I love biking to other boroughs.

Fun facts about the High Bridge:

  1. It’s been closed for more than 40 years.
  2. It used to be an aqueduct.
  3. It is the oldest standing bridge in NYC.

Let’s do this, folks, we got stuff to do today! You too, amiright? Enough already with the chitchat then.

After cleansing yourself from today’s drivel, please:

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 apologise, in advance, for the long question. After years spent battling one identity crisis after another, I (sort of) figured out, a few years ago, that my shtick was: angsty, feminist, WOC in STEM, and social justice advocate with a love for funky thrift store fashion finds. Over the years, I have tried to train myself to channel all my angst into a dark sense of humor while perfecting the smokey eye look.

As a result, I supposedly “exude an air of confidence which can excite and/or terrify people” according to quite a few people. As someone who was an outcast growing up in an extremely repressed country, this transition has worked out surprisingly well for the most part after my move to the first wold. The issue arises when I’m with my fellow science grad students.

As the only female in my program in my particular subfield (and often the only female or POC in most of my classes) with a very low tolerance for bullsh-t, I seem to find myself isolated again. I don’t mind being labelled the feminist killjoy when I call out intolerant behavior or when I’m just bulldozing over people. I refuse to accept the notion that minority grad students have to be at the bottom of the food chain. I get paid too little and love my field too much to not take pride in my work. I have close friends in other programs, but in my immediate professional family, I feel like everyone shies away from speaking to me. I sometimes wonder if the problem is that there a is a savvier way of being myself that I just don’t know of. The emphasis on networking for grad students makes me feel like this is something that I should care about. Please help?

She sells sea–oh, screw it.

Dear SSS-osi,

There’s a lot there, but let me just start by saying, thanks for writing and you’ve come to the right place.

Just this morning, Aunt Pythia woke up with that familiar yet unnerving and highly anxiety-provoking feeling that she’s gone ahead and done it once again: she’s been too much, somewhere and somehow, and the poor sensitive folks of that place and that manner of the moment are still reeling from her awful behavior.

As a fellow bulldozer, in other words, I know exactly what you mean. And in my darkest moments I succumb – temporarily – to the idea that I need to stop calling out intolerant and/or obnoxious behavior, that I should just sit there silently not mentioning injustice, that I should lean towards making people feel comfortable over so rudely asking them to acknowledge bullshit.

But then, when fully awake and reading the newspaper, or walking around outside, or even just drinking my morning coffee, I change my mind. After all, you and I, we have benefitted more from our sassy approach than have we suffered. There are people who love us and that must mean we’re not intolerable to be with, right? And although we sometimes go overboard and make mistakes, the world really could use a few more hot-headed loudmouths with our perspective, no?

Public service, world, you’re welcome.

Truth is, people can’t handle you because they’re not secure enough. They don’t “know what to do with you” so they avoid you, and I think it’s a pretty good indication that they really aren’t much fun. It’s kind of like, when you’re looking for some action, and you ask someone, “on a scale of 1 to 10, how sexual are you?” and they say, “I’m a 4,” then you believe them. In fact, subtract 2. The answer I was looking for was 17. Time to move on.

Advice: Go find other people who can be real with you. They’re out there, and one great aspect of being completely over-the-top real is that other people self-select for us. The ones who stick around can be trusted. That’s not to say you don’t go to grad student mixers, but go with the intention of just being completely yourself, and hilarious and smokey eyed and angsty, and some people – me, me!! – will naturally gravitate towards your amazing self. If that doesn’t happen, their loss.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. in terms of being close to your colleagues, I’d suggest study partners for specific problem sets or classes. Ask someone to meet over coffee, since that’s highly unthreatening and could well blossom into friendship.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a female in her late 20’s who also happens to be

  1. aspergian,
  2. asexual,
  3. religious/conservative (I guess the relational boundaries of the (3) are pretty easy to accept for me because of the (2)), and
  4. not particularly attractive.

I would really like to get married eventually, but I feel like I can’t understand and relate to people on so many levels, that P(marrying | (1), (2), (3), (4)) = 0. Actually, columns like yours are very useful to me to get to know what’s going on in other people’s minds, but the more I know, the more I feel like I belong to another planet.

My social life revolves solely around interest groups (nerdy and church-y), where I do meet quite a lot of nice guys. At best, though, they consider me a “bro”, which is great but not helpful, because even if I’m asked out, it is not a date. I have already tried asexy dating sites but unfortunately they are too sparsely populated.

What do you think? Should I just give up the thought of lifelong companionship and focus on my career and interests? Or should I decorate my laptop with a “lonely heart” sticker? Or what else? I’d really appreciate some advice.

Somewhat Preoccupied Individual Not Suited To Experience Relationships


Fantastic sign-off, wow.

So, I never knew about adult asexuals before, but this Guardian article explains it pretty well, at least for the person who they interviewed. In his case, he found someone to marry by joining asexuality.org, which seems like a valuable resource and is a great example of what is so amazing about the internet.

So, it seems that asexual people like companionship and partnership like anyone else, just without sex. And, as long as that’s been made clear to both people in advance, and they are both cool with it, there’s really no issue at all.

Except for one thing, namely the rarity of your potential mates. As you are well aware, most men are sexual, and asking them to be in a long-term intimate relationship without sex would likely be a dealbreaker. So to optimize your chances, I’d give up on finding a boyfriend through your social groups, and I’d go straight towards asexual meeting places, either virtual or in person.

Turns out there are 44 asexual Meetup groups, and I suggest you start attending!

As for your concerns about being “not particularly unattractive,” you could either ask for advice from someone you trust on how to flatter your look, or you could just wear stuff that makes you very comfortable. That’s already an attractive feature. But in any case I’m guessing this society of asexual people is pretty open-minded.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

How can I find meaning in my life as a pure mathematician? I am a tenure-track professor, and I spend so much time studying and giving myself so much of a headache trying to understand totally pure math notions like perfectoid spaces, almost ring theory, p-adic Hodge theory, etc. These may of course have some practical use some day, but not today. And of course, I teach calculus and whatnot to mostly disinterested students, but teaching is not really where my heart is.

I don’t have a significant other because I am short and fat and all I want to do is study the aforementioned esoterica all day. I love it, there is nothing else I would rather do, but when the going gets tough, like when I can’t follow a proof, or when the road to all the mathematical topics I have to learn seems too long, I find myself wondering why am I beating myself over and giving myself such a hard time trying to follow such technical minutiae that don’t have any impact at all on the world?

It makes me unhappy, and so my mom tells me I should go work for Google and make significantly more money and have a 9-5 job and do work that makes a difference. I have no interest at all in working for Google, i.e “industry,” or making lots of money. I love the freedom that academia provides. On non teaching days I can get up when I want to, stay home in my pjs, etc. And of course I enjoy the freedom to study what I want. But how can I make studying pure math meaningful?

Almost Going Into Industry

Dear AGII,

A few comments:

  1. It is not true that short and fat people don’t date. That’s a myth. Here’s an entirely unscientific article that supports me in this.
  2. You can definitely go out and “make a difference,” but what kind of difference?
  3. Your mom just wants you to be happy, and she thinks making more money will make you happy. Will it? I don’t think so, you said yourself you don’t care about money.
  4. Academia is painfully slow, but you love it. You said so yourself.
  5. Teaching is the shit work of academia. Some of your students – most, actually – are disinterested, but some are not. They are awesome.
  6. The shit work of other jobs is much less awesome and (often) much more like shoveling actual shit.
  7. Having said all that, I left academia, and you know that, so it feels like you’re asking me to give you permission to do so, which I do.
  8. But even as I give you permission, know that some people (like my husband) are made for academia and would suffer outside it, and other people (like myself) have left academia but it’s not like that suddenly made them happy, because they are just naturally identity crisis prone people who are never actually happy and always wonder what they fuck they should be doing with their lives.
  9. Plus, I don’t actually want you to be happy.

Hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Hi Aunt Pythia!

I am a 30 year old female in the tech industry living in Washington DC. My family and I immigrated some 20 years ago and I am by far the only one doing well. I am looking down the barrel of becoming my parents’ living retirement plan and housing provider in a few years and, as such, I am trying to get as much traveling and ‘living’ out of the way before I take up that job.

I am doing relatively well financially: make a decent income, paid off my student loans, rent a cheap place, live on a budget, and trying to save 14% of my income towards my own retirement, but I’m also looking at what’s coming and thinking I need to figure out a way to prepare financially for that and I just don’t know how.

How would you advise someone like me in financially preparing for what is coming when what is coming involves elderly parents:
– With no savings
– With no property
– With no retirement plan
– With no ability to help themselves (language barrier)
– With very small social security payments (~$500 for the both of them)

Please keep in mind that I am not resentful of the fact that my mom and dad need the help (my unhelpful siblings, on the other hand, I do resent), I’m just worried I’m financially unprepared for it and trying to balance that with my own wishes/dreams.

Future Caregiver

Dear FC,

Well, I really don’t know. I think you should talk to someone who does, lickety split. Here are some basic facts that you’ll need to have ready:

  1. Are you parents green card holders?
  2. Are they eligible for medicare? Look here for some useful info on that.
  3. Are they prepared to go back to their home country for retirement? Is it safe? Does it have a safety net for them? Is it cheaper to live there? Do they have family and friends there still?
  4. Maybe the good place to start with possible future scenarios is finding other immigrants who have features similar to your parents but are slightly older, and see how they are living. I’d interview their functional children to see what they learned.
  5. As for your siblings, it could be a major problem down the line, but first thing’s first. Don’t take on the whole world at once.

Aunt Pythia


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: Aunt Pythia
  1. DJ
    August 29, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Teaching is the shit work of academics? Not for me; I like teaching, although I freely admit my school is unusual in that most of the students actually care about learning, and that this helps a lot.

    I think the real shit work is writing grant proposals.


    • Christina Sormani
      August 29, 2015 at 12:17 pm

      I enjoy teaching too and have justified teaching as the key contribution pure mathematicians make to society. In fact, we are funded largely because we teach such an important subject.

      I also like to seek out applications of my pure research. That involves a willingness to speak to applied mathematicians and make your research very easy for a nonexpert to read. You can include background sections for all your articles on the arxiv postings even if you are asked to remove them for publication. Ultimately mathematics can only be applied when it is understood.


  2. August 29, 2015 at 10:52 am

    “Aunt Pythia is itching to bike all over it as soon as she’s shot this Saturday’s wisdom wad all over your browser.”

    So wisdom comes out of the barrel of a gun?*

    *Methinks ‘shot the wad’ doesn”t mean what you think it means: see http://www.answers.com/Q/What_is_origin_of_the_idiom_shoot_the_wad. Be careful or you will soon face the horror of using ‘decimate’ to mean ‘annihilate’.


    • August 29, 2015 at 11:23 am

      Haha you’re right. I meant to play off the conventional usage. No muskets here.


  3. August 29, 2015 at 10:57 am

    “my mom tells me I should
    go work for Google and make significantly more money
    have a 9-5 job
    do work that makes a difference”

    Choose one.


  4. August 29, 2015 at 11:40 am

    Where should I go to learn more about p-adic Hodge theory?

    Mike Orrison used to break down reasons to do math as “because it’s beautiful, because it’s hard, or because it’s useful.” Sounds like you’re stuck on “hard and not useful”; my vote would be for reclaiming the beautiful part.

    As for teaching, there are ways to make it feel more meaningful. For example, you can contact the students who did well in your classes and tell them they did well & should take more math. Some will be pleased; a few will be astonished and grateful.


  5. Christina Sormani
    August 29, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Dear SSS-osi,

    Feeling alienated in grad school has nothing to do with your personality. I was pretty mucch the opposite: completely quiet nerdette who never wore makeup. Still I didn’t have friends in my program and did all the problem sets on my own. I believe I’m a stronger mathematician for having done that but then again I was very asocial and far more comfortable working alone. My friends were all my old friends from high school and a couple of the masters students in my program. So I say be yourself and when you see an asocial gal in the corner remember she’s not deliberately snubbing you.


  6. cat
    August 29, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    There is a poker saying “when you sitting at the table and you can’t spot the sucker its you”. I’ve found that the same isn’t true at the table of life. In a room full of boring people? You aren’t as interesting as you think you are. In a room full of assholes? You probably are an asshole too.

    This is obviously a white male perspective so I have no idea if this is the only dynamic in play, but when people say they are disliked for being to real I’ve noticed they are acting without empathy in their truth telling.


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