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Aunt Pythia’s advice

December 5, 2015

Aunt Pythia is very excited to announce that she’s discovered her new career, thanks to her dear friend Becky Jaffe who sent her this video the other day:

That’s right, readers! Aunt Pythia has always wanted to be one of those “crazy old purple ladies” – although with dogs instead of cats – but she’s felt just too darn ridiculous to go it alone. Luckily, there’s a group of like-minded grannies whose goal is “the enhancement of the ridiculous.” Right on, right on. I’m wondering if I’m too young to qualify.

I have a feeling there are more people out there interested in this. Contact me and we’ll form a local chapter.

And now, on to business! Let’s go quickly to the part of Saturday morning where Aunt Pythia spouts nonsense to anyone who will listen, shall we? Homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are on the dish, help yourself. Yes, that’s right, I said oatmeal and chocolate chip. There’s no fucking law against that.

After the cookies and advice, please don’t hesitate to:

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.


Dearest Aunt Pythia,

I have been trying on and off for almost a year to enter the word “binner” into Urban Dictionary, but it is always rejected! I’m at my wits’ end! 

Below is my submission:

Binner: The inner erection of the clitoris that females get when aroused; the inner boner.

The part of the clitoris, the clitoral glans, that is seen on the outside of the body is only one piece of the clit, and it’s got all the nerve endings. However, the rest of the clit extends down into the body and is made of erectile tissue.

This part of the clitoris fills with as much blood as a penis does when males get erections, so it can be thought of as the inner boner or the “binner.”

Example the first: I got such a binner watching those smokin’ hot dudes playing beach volleyball.

Example the second: I can’t really think right now because my raging binner’s sucked all the blood from my brain.

Can you help?!?!

Blue Binnered in Indy

P.S. Hi Aunt Pythia! I’m Trisha Borowicz, one of the directors of Science, Sex and the Ladies. My web analytics led me to your post about the movie trailer. I stayed to read because you got some pretty cool, feminist, mathy shit going on here, and I just couldn’t resist asking Aunt Pythia a question. Anyway, thanks for writing about my trailer. Oh – and my question is absolutely true…and when I went to my original post about it, I see that it has been 2 years and probably about 5 tries.


Dear Blue,

Holy crap, that’s an awesome word. And we needed one for that. Next can you come up with a word for a mistress that’s a man? I’m thinking you’re gonna go with “manstress.” I can’t believe I didn’t think of that until now. You have inspired me.

I guess my only question about binners is this: how do we know if we’ve got one? I mean, I’m sure I get binners all the time but don’t know it, right? It’s not as obvious for us ladies is all. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Maybe that’s the missing ingredient in the submission?

Another possibility is that lots of different people have submit similar definitions for them to believe it’s really a word? What do you think, readers? Is this a great way to spend your Saturday mornings, or is it the best way to spend your Saturday mornings?

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What I love about mathematics is an amazing feeling of understanding what precisely someone meant, deciphering dense texts, capturing the idea someone tried to convey by an accidentally misleading example. Solving problems is not so enjoyable, but they help in the long run. The research is the worst. It’s so hard, and the results are usually boring compared to beautiful ideas already existing in the literature.

I am a PhD student at one of the top US universities, so I’ve done some research, somewhat successively, but didn’t enjoy it. I am fairly confident that I can finish my current program and eventually become a mediocre mathematician and maybe discover something awesome once or twice in my life.

Doing research to get a job and teaching calculus for thirty years is not a wonderful future, but it’s also not so bad. Am I ruining my life by sticking to this plan?

Most other careers also look bad for me in the same way. Everywhere from politics to videogames the core of success is the ability to extract information which exists, but wasn’t intentionally put there. Finding hidden patterns in the data, reading against the grain, applying ideas outside of their usual domain. All of this I don’t enjoy.

I am noticeably better than most other people at figuring what the creator of the information wanted me to understand from it. This skill sometimes help, but usually is absolutely pointless. Maybe personal relations benefit from it, but I’m not great at them for different reasons.

Should I just grow up more and accept that the world wasn’t designed to be enjoyable? But then I look at my friends who seem to really love doing original work and consider learning from books to be boring but necessary activity, and I feel that maybe I just have a different system of thinking. One where you don’t do awesome stuff and don’t earn millions, but instead, I dunno, have an inherent property of coolness in your soul. Or something. I usually avoid thinking about that. Sorry for such a long letter and a striking example of a “first world problem”.

Rather Educated Although Dumb

Dear READ,

I’m going to rephrase what I hear you saying. You love learning math, you are good with working stuff out that you know to be true, but you dislike working hard on something that might not end up being true.

So the payoff – that moment of clarity – is joyous, but the stuff leading up to it is painful for you. Without knowing more about why it’s painful, I can only guess. Here’s a list:

  1. You are anxious that you won’t ever discover the truth, and the anxiety gets in the way of enjoying anything.
  2. You choose problems that are too hard and so you go into the process unprepared.
  3. You postpone the process because of your dread and then you never feel like you have the mental space to think straight.
  4. You feel like other people have an easier time with not understanding math and it makes you feel bad in comparison because it’s hard.
  5. You are simply impatient.

I am just throwing around ideas here. I actually have no idea what is going on for you. Even so, I have a few thoughts.

First, part of me wants to tell you to look around and imagine you left math altogether. Then what? What do you think you’d want to do? Don’t think about it as a career for the rest of your life type of thing, but rather a project you’d embark on. What project do you think is cool? Work on that one. Give yourself space to choose; if not every project, at least some of them.

Next, I’d advise you to be realistic in the following sense. There is no perfect job. You can quit one job, or one career, and then start a new one, and you’d still have problems. Take it from someone who knows. Right now I’ve got an awesome consulting gig, doing a project I totally care about and I think is important, but even so I feel like a hustler, because being an independent consultant makes you a hustler.

Finally, I’d suggest that doing research requires patience, and a certain dose of humility, and a lack of caring about other people. These are all things that you can work on. But at the same time, there are fields in which the results are faster and easier and are still important. Data science is a faster, easier field than algebraic number theory. Projects go faster, people care about minor advances, and so on. On the other hand, the questions you answer weren’t asked by Diophantus. So there’s a trade-off too.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a young male professor in computer science. Being closer in age to postdocs and PhD students than other faculty, I find myself, especially at conferences, hanging out with them, going out in the evening, and so on.

While these kind of circumstances often lead to encounters and hookups, I have always been careful not to hook up with anyone, as I feel the differential of power and the scarcity of women in our field make it somewhat problematic for faculty to hook up with students (I am also in a monogamish long-time relationship, but that would not be a problem neither for me or my long time partner).

About two years ago, I found myself having a great connection with a PhD student at a conference (she studies in a different country, so I only see her at international meetings, but our fields have some overlap). We ended up talking all the time, and spent a lot of time together, nothing romantic being on the table.

Since then, every time we have seen each other, we have had incredible chemistry and end up going out a lot, in a group or not. This has been going on for a bunch of conferences now. I have no intention of acting on the situation, both because I feel it would ruin our relationship, and because I am afraid it would be detrimental to her career (though I am fairly certain we both feel very strongly about the other).

However, I am always very excited to see her each time there is a chance, and we both want to talk all the time, etc. As a consequence, I strongly suspect lots of people assume that we are indeed hooking up. I don’t want to be part of the creepy atmosphere that make it harder to be a woman in computer science, and I don’t want her reputation to be hurt by the situation, if people assume she is sleeping with older faculty. On the other hand, I really feel I am doing nothing wrong here! What should I do ?

Becoming the patriarchy

Dear Becoming,

You’re doing nothing wrong, they’re all jealous. Please enjoy each other.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

As a man approaching middle age and managing people in their twenties in the tech world, I often find that I just relate better to a lot of the men. We share common interests (sports, similar sense of humor) and I am just more comfortable asking them to grab the occasional drink in a one-on-one situation.

I can’t help wondering what some of the women in my group feel about this. Would they be grateful that I am leaving them alone, or resentful of the extra bonding their male colleagues get? I do regular meetings with the women, and take them out to coffee once in a while, but the guys get that extra, less guarded time.

It also makes my job more fun, as I like drinking and socializing with tech nerds. I think I am being fair when it comes to review time, but that could be a delusion on my part. I can also see that even if it was true, it may not be perceived as true .

I think the women on the team are funny, smart people too, and I would probably enjoy the occasional drink with them as well. It just feels weird to ask them to join me for a drink. I have no such problem with female colleagues, where there is no power imbalance in the relationship. What do I do?

Mature Intelligent Man Or Sexist Asshole



Oh. My. God. I want a mimosa. With you. Right now.

OK, so I have no problem drinking with men. I’ve always done it, and I don’t think it’s weird. In fact I love it. Alcohol has the magical ability to help people find common interests. You don’t need to know what they are in advance. You don’t even need to drink alcohol; just being in a bar, ready to engage in a real conversation with another person, is enough. I think you should try it. Here are two suggestions.

First, ask a friendly, open-minded young woman you manage by saying something like, “Hey I sometimes have drinks after work with Tom or Jim, and I’m wondering if you’d like to join me one of these days? I’d love to get a chance to talk in a relaxed manner. It doesn’t have to be after work, and it doesn’t have to involve alcohol, but it could. What do you think?

Once you’ve done it with her, it will be easy for the other women to think of it as super normal.

If that seems weird – which I don’t think it is – then I’d suggest invited a small group of people for drinks and making sure the group involved one or two women. Like, make it a celebration of a project getting done or something.

The caveat is that women – and men of course – may have family duties with young children. For that reason, please never make it a spontaneous after-work drink event, or make it required. Always give people advance warning, at least 3 or 4 days, so they can arrange things.

And please have a drink for me next time!

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: Uncategorized
  1. December 5, 2015 at 10:44 am

    Hey, this is Blue Binnered in Indy. I think your question about how one knows whether they have a binner is a valid one. It is inner after all. I’m tempted to say it’s hard to describe, but you know it when you feel it. However, I think that might be an interesting thing to ask women to describe… Also, I like manstress…I also once used simply “mister” to describe that. “Oh, that guy? He’s her mister.”


  2. Christina Sormani
    December 5, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    Dear MIMOSA,

    Heres the problem. Women are not all mathbabe. So many of us would be very creeped out by an invitation to go drinking one on one with a boss. And some might even be creeped out by a group invitation that included only other men. And best would be at least two women in a group going out for a drink. Otherwise just stick to the coffee.


  3. December 5, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    Hey, READ, have you tried *writing* mathematics? That is, have you tried picking a result that you think is beautiful and trying to explain it well? There are lots of places out there that publish expository mathematics– start with the MAA journals– and there are also academic jobs that value this kind of work.


  4. cat
    December 5, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    Maybe I am reading to much into this and thats why I feel there is so much to unpack, but this is why there is such a retention problem for women in Tech.

    Your team is made up of “Tech Nerds” regardless of their genders. That you assume you would enjoy hanging out with male tech nerds and “probably” would enjoy hanging out with the female tech nerds seems to me like an unexamined bias on your part.

    Unless your company has a purely objective promotion system, think tests and seniority, I’d bet the female tech nerds resent it and think you are playing favorites. Even some of the male tech nerds who don’t like sports and drinking probably feel you are playing favorites with the men who closely conform to male gender stereotype.

    If people on your team don’t feel like socializing that the group does includes their interests they’ll feel like outsiders.


  5. EasyEd
    December 5, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    You could be a grannie sooner than later if you play your cards right.


  6. December 5, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    “Doing research to get a job and teaching calculus for thirty years is not a wonderful future… I am noticeably better than most other people at figuring what the creator of the information wanted me to understand from it. This skill sometimes help, but usually is absolutely pointless.”

    So what I would like to ask READ is: What are your reasons for thinking that teaching calculus (et. al.) would not be wonderful?

    I’ve just clicked over a decade teaching at a community college (algebra, statistics, trigonometry, etc.) and personally I find it to be *endlessly fascinating*. Actually, my father just asked at Thanksgiving, “what would you be doing if you couldn’t teach?” and I was just totally stupefied; I couldn’t come up with an answer. My initial expectations were not this, but to date I find that there’s always room for improvement, opportunities for refinement, ways to get better at diagnosing people’s surprising problems, areas to advance the scholarship of teaching & learning, etc. I’m still getting better all the time, and it’s increasingly enjoyable all the time.

    When you say, “I am noticeably better than most other people at figuring what the creator of the information wanted me to understand from it”, well, that is *exactly the skill that untold legions of students are desperately crying out for*, and combined with being dedicated and patient about explaining this material — and listening honestly to people’s questions and stumbling blocks — it’s more precious than gold.

    End of manifesto. 🙂


    • December 10, 2015 at 1:46 am

      “Surely no subject in early college mathematics is more exciting or more fun to teach than the calculus. It is like being the ringmaster of a great three-ring circus. It has been said that one can recognize the students on a college campus who have studied the calculus – they are the students with no eyebrows. In utter astonishment at the incredible applicability of the subject, the eyebrows of the calculus students have receded higher and higher and finally vanished over the backs of their heads.” – Howard Eves, _Great Moments in Mathematics_


  7. Linden
    December 7, 2015 at 3:43 am

    Hi READ, your self-description reminds me strongly of myself, and your quandry reminds me of one I had several years ago. Math at the frontier is indeed ugly compared to math in the textbook. While working on my PhD I also questioned whether I wanted to do research (spend all my time in the uglier part). Aunt Pythia paraphrased this as “READ doesn’t want to work hard for something that might not be true” but that doesn’t seem quite right to me.

    If READ is like me, the problem isn’t that the result might not be true; it’s that even when the effort is “successful”, the result is not compelling. There are other reasons to think the effort was worthwhile, such as pleasure at having a new/different argument (thinking against the grain), or pleasure at the act of creation of this particular ho hum result (original work), but READ has trouble connecting with these reasons for effort.

    I eventually started getting the appeal of thinking against the grain and making original work. I would not advocate forcing yourself towards these things if they seem truly distasteful to you, but I got there from where you are, and so far it’s a pretty fun place to be.

    My turning point was reading John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education. I didn’t read the whole thing (you’ll see that after a certain point, it becomes very speculative), but what I read changed my life. It written by an award-winning teacher who describes everything that is wrong with the US education system, specifically how it works to repress thinking against the grain.

    Good luck!


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