Archive for the ‘Aunt Pythia’ Category

Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 20, 2014 3 comments

It was a long week! Very emotional!

And to top it all off, last night Aunt Pythia and her sweetie and some besties went to see – what else? – Ivo Van Hove’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. Aunt Pythia’s review of this deeply felt, Swedish introspection and investigation into the darkest corners of marital communication, and lack thereof, can be summarized in three words:

more sex, please.

Sadly, that may be the exact review you will give Aunt Pythia’s column today, although keep in mind she’s done her best to foster sex-related questions, and moreover she generously doles out sex-related advice, even when it isn’t called for.

So please have pity on her, and of course don’t forget to:

please think of something (sexual) to ask Aunt Pythia 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 applying to some math PhD programs this fall. Some of the applications ask me to specify faculty members at that university whom I would like to work with, and I’ve also been given the general advice to reach out to professors at various schools in order to get my name out there and increase my chances of admission. I have a couple of questions about this:

1) I feel like professors must be inundated with these emails from applicants, and that this would be a really annoying aspect of being a professor. How can I be minimally annoying?

2) I feel like professors must know that students (including myself) are angling for admission offers and not necessarily driven by the pure motive of academic interest. I’m not suggesting that I would lie to or try to manipulate someone whose work I wasn’t interested in, but the truth is I have never before gone around contacting mathematicians who have published interesting papers, so it feels disingenuous to do so only now that I hope to gain something. Is there any way to do this without feeling dishonest? Also, should I be explicit about my intention to name-drop them on the application, or should I pretend my motives are less self-serving?

3) Although I have some general ideas about areas of math that interest me (e.g. Representation Theory), I don’t have a really specific idea about the kind of research or thesis I will do– and because I’m just starting out, I don’t have the background to understand the papers and research on these professors’ CV’s. Should I just contact people in Algebra or whatever field I’m thinking about, or do I need to decide that “I want to contribute to your research on specific esoteric topic X” or whatever?

Although I think I have a reasonably solid application in terms of GPA, test scores, and letters of recommendation, I have essentially no research background or professional networking. So I really would like to do whatever I can to bolster my chances of getting into a program. Any advice you can give would be much appreciated. Even if that advice is simply to forget about sending annoying requests to strangers and just apply with what I have.

Getting Responses About Doctorate

Dear GRAD,

Here’s the thing, people like to take students. So if you express interest in working with them, they will like it, while they will of course also know it’s partly because you want to get into grad school, but that’s okay and normal. Of course there are some people that already have too many students, or actually don’t like taking students, so if you are ignored don’t take it personally. But in general it’s a flattering introduction, and people like to be flattered.

Plus, at the end of the day math is a community of people, and the sooner you start getting to know the people the better. So I’d suggest you really do reach out to people and take a look around at their papers and do your best to understand the gist of them. Ideally you would be able to meet them in person, say at a visit to the department or something, but barring that introducing yourself over email is fine, as long as it’s not a form letter.

Tell them about what you’ve read of their work, what interests you, and mention that you’re graduating now and applying to grad schools. Not offensive. And good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m currently a math postdoc planning to transition to data science/something similar. The decision to leave academia hasn’t been easy, and one thing making it hard is that I really enjoy teaching. I particularly like teaching probability/stats/data analysis and I think the data journalism program you’re running is really cool! I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on (i) is it possible to stay involved in education in some form as a non-academic mathematician and (ii) if so, what to do to create these opportunities? I don’t plan to spend time on this early in my industry career as I need to establish myself professionally, but I hope to have opportunities to share what I love with others at some point down the line.

Pursuing A New Direction Actually


The sign-offs are killing it today.

OK so I agree, the worst part about leaving academic math for industry is that you don’t get to teach, and teaching is super fun. I’ve made do with going to math camp every now and then to get a dose of teaching, and more recently I worked at the Lede Program in data journalism, which allowed me to teach as well.

Suggestion: tutoring? Taking a few weeks to work at summer programs? Signing up to teach night classes? Becoming an adjunct at a local university and teaching whatever? All these things are possible.

There are also quite a few data science training programs springing up around the country that you might be able to work at, so take a look at that as well. Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Aunt Pythia starts this recent column by saying “Aunt Pythia kind of blew her load, so to speak, on the sex questions last week”.

But on MY PC, there is no update between 9th and 30th August, so my question is “Where is the 23rd August sexfest?”

Seeks Titillating Internet Material

Dear STIM,

Here it is. I got there by going to the front page and searching for “Aunt Pythia sex”. It’s really not that difficult, but I can understand why you might have been distracted. Plus, thank you for letting me link to that, it’s saving an otherwise sexless column.


Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a particle physics grad student who knows embarrassingly little about statistical analysis. For me, a significance of 5 sigma means a discovery, and 3 sigma stuff is ‘interesting’ (but almost always goes away with more data).

A while ago, I came upon this article. I am sure you heard/read about it. It basically says elite male-run labs hire female postdocs at 36%, while elite female-run labs hire female postdocs at 47% while the female postdocs are 39% of the pool. This is presented as “Male PIs don’t usually hire female postdocs”.

I was very confused when I read this, because to me male PIs were hiring at a level close to the average number of female postdocs available. As you can imagine, the female-run lab number is higher because there are ~20% female PIs in their data. So, that skews the numbers. They also give some significance (p-value) for their results, but how robust is the p-value? Or, what is the significant result here? Please give me a lecture on this!

Significance Is Greatly Mind Abusing


Physicists are kind of spoiled for data. They often just collect way more data than other people can, and their experiments don’t typically affect the results nearly as much, nor are they as messy, as you see in human experiments.

Anyway, a few points.

  1. I don’t understand your argument for why the female numbers are naturally skewed, unless you’re saying that there are so few data points that the averages tend to be far away from the expected average, which is true, but it could have just as well been below average, at least theoretically. Correct me if I’m mistaken.
  2. Not knowing more about this field, I don’t know the answer to a bunch of important questions I would ask. For example, do some fields expect you to work very long hours which would be tough for young mothers? Or are some fields for other reasons more friendly to women, for example if the hours were flexible, or if the wages were more transparent, or if the leaders of the field were more welcoming? All sorts of reasons that women might bunch together in certain fields and thus in certain labs.
  3. Most importantly, this paper seems to think there’s a natural experiment going on, but there almost never is. There are almost always confounding factors such as the above.
  4. So, if we really wanted to say men are less willing to hire women, we’d need to set up a randomized experiment and send a bunch of resumes that differ only in the gender of the applicant, and see what happens next.
  5. Having said all that, I didn’t actually read the paper, so I might be overly skeptical of the results. I have pancakes to make pretty quick so there’s a constraint in place here.
  6. In any case every time a randomized experiment has been performed, to my knowledge, there has been systemic sexism in place. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there is actual sexism at work here, even if I’m not convinced this is proof of it.
  7. Finally, you should take a look at t-tests, which you probably already know about, but here’s the reason: you can never get a 5-sigma results when your n is small. In other words, your test result, no matter what you do, is a function both of the amount of sexism that exists in a given lab and the number of labs you are evaluating, and you can’t do much about the latter even if the former is substantial.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 13, 2014 16 comments

Do you know what Aunt Pythia has been occupied with recently? Yes, you guessed it, she has a fantabulous new knitting pattern and she just can’t get enough of it. Here’s a recent work-in-progress pic:



I hope you know how much Aunt Pythia must love you considering how hard it was to tear herself away from such a beautiful project. So please, love her back, and after loving her madly, don’t forget to:

please think of something to ask Aunt Pythia 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.


My dear Aunt Pythia propagating loving introspective nerdy girls,

This morning, I am going to imagine sitting in between your lovely kids to enjoy crepes and vent with you. Today’s vent is that I have been highly disturbed by this week’s coverage of the Fields medal (putting aside for the moment the question of whether the Fields medal should exist in the first place). One article I read compared being female in math with being a handicapped competitive athlete.

WTF? This is the news that is being reported and the way people are reacting? What is the most healthy way I can respond to this and still enjoy my Saturday morning crepes?

SINGing Introspective Nerdy Girl

P.S. I also read the following social media post of a male scientist: “I know I’ll get shit for this, but doesn’t it seem a bit weird that the first woman to win this is butch and wears men’s clothing? Is this because she has a man’s brain, or because she got chosen because she’s man-like?”

I’m not sure it would be a good idea to publicize this, but I would like to ask how I should respond in this situation (feel free to paraphrase the quote if you see fit). I would personally love to publicly shame the male scientist, but I also wanted to make sure I am responding in a way that is helpful and positive to anybody who is reading my message.

In case you are able to see his Facebook posts, the male scientist is “Brian Raney” at USC.


Hmmm… not sure what I can add to this post about the topic, but here goes.

I guess the best way to think about this is as a totally non-mathematical PR thing, which is heavily steeped in weird and fucked up expectations due to historical sexism. As for the USC guy, it would obviously have been infinitely better for him to say something like, “Maryam was awarded the Fields Medal because she did some incredible stellar mathematics.” But there you go, some people miss opportunities to say the right thing. Or maybe he first said the right thing and then he added a bunch of other things after that, who knows. I don’t even care enough to check on his Facebook page. Who cares about what one random guys says?

As for overall butchiness and wearing men’s clothes, lots of female mathematicians do that (including myself many days!), and it’s actually not an uninteresting observation about women in math and other STEM fields, but the phenomenon is certainly not limited to Fields Medal winners.

If you don’t mind me going off into a slight tangent (thanks!), let me also mention that men’s clothes are, generally speaking, great for looking totally unobjectionable, not getting harassed or hit on, and not evoking catcalls (a big deal here in NYC!) compared to short skirts and high heels, and if men could wear them they totally would. Oh wait, they already do.

My point being, there are lots of reasonable reasons to wear men’s clothes besides being a lesbian (although being a lesbian is of course a great reason! And please include suspenders when possible! Fetching!). Being taken seriously as a scholar comes to mind. I defend everyone’s rights to trousers and a boring button-down shirt.

Or, you know, a short skirt and heels if you wanna sex it up and get some attention. Or for the more full-figured gal, a bodycon dress:


The key is to get what you want, when you want it.

Keep singing!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a 24-year-old young woman in New York and I consider myself pretty lucky to absolutely LOVE my job as a “data analyst”. I make great money, my boss trusts me in a sort of crazy way, I can work remotely whenever I want to, and after 6 months, I’ve come to truly believe that my company is an awesome place to work and a pretty great group of people (I guess you could say I’ve been drinking the free chai tea + almond milk). Though I did balk for a second and wonder if I’m just a SQL database monkey, I’m proud to say that if I have to spend 1/7 of my day in SQL but get to spend the rest of it messing around with Python pandas and learning to be a command line ninja, give me a banana and call me Koko.

Now, I won’t have this autonomy forever. This is only my first job, and we’re rapidly expanding, which includes building out an ACTUAL data science department. Without going into too much detail, our platform currently delivers some basic analytics to our customers, and we want to beef up these metrics into something they value us for and, ideally, become dependent on.

We are hiring a director (read: a new boss for me) and we’ve interviewed a ton of people. As you’ve mentioned, a good data scientist is hard to find! I’m pretty outspoken and have spoken up about presenting our clients our with not-quite-as-accurate-as-I-myself-would-like metrics (and I drink chai tea here, not the kool aid). I think I could be a GOOD data scientist someday, but I need the right person to guide me. Most of these candidates are Google Analytics or Tableau jockeys who don’t have any interest in my sweet matplotlib graphs with opacity depending on client billing amount! circumference depending on length of time with us! and so forth.

Last week, I met a candidate that I KNOW will never be topped. She (SHE!!) is also outspoken, knows her shit, cares about data AND ALSO cares about stuff besides data (!) and just is certainly my perfect Yoda. Unfortunately, because the job market is a real thing and a good data scientist is hard to find, I fear that she will not take this job in favor of a better offer elsewhere, financially or otherwise (probably just a bigger company with more data than mine).

Aunt Pythia, HOW do I get her to choose my small company?? This feels to me like the kind of career-changing, perhaps even LIFE changing moment that you have to do EVERYTHING you can to make happen. What would you advise a young woman to do? I have scruples in life, but am not above planting bed bugs at the offices of her competing offer.

Most Enthusiastic Neophyte To Ever Enquire


You are seriously awesome and you don’t need a Yoda to tell you that, although we’d all love a Yoda.

“PATIENCE YOU MUST HAVE my young padawan”

“PATIENCE YOU MUST HAVE my young padawan”

Here’s the thing. I sense in you the power to be a great data scientist someday, not because your fave boss will or will not take that job, but because you have the obvious urge to do something cool and fun with your life, and because you have integrity, and because you are too smart to trick yourself into thinking what you’re doing is great when it isn’t. Trust in yourself. And if your company doesn’t hire someone awesome, go find yourself another job. Keep learning, keep striving.

Love always,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a junior mathematician just starting to navigate the depth of academia. I am so disillusioned by what I see. I thought being a mathematician was supposed to be this wonderful thing, wherein I exchange ideas with people of similar interests, make friends, and not working but playing.

Instead, I have met so many mean people, who hide what they are doing from me, some who ignore me because they don’t think that I’m good enough, and some who try to intimidate me. When I was a grad student, I even had a student by the same advisor, who never spoke to me once while we were students together, except to try to embarrass me during my talks.

While there are nice people in academia, and I still love being a mathematician, I sometimes become really sad about the mean people in academia. Sometimes, I feel so disillusioned and burned out, then I am too upset to be thinking about math. I feel that I would be so much more productive if only I could deal with these feelings, and I am often frustrated by the fact. Is leaving academia my only solution?


Dear Disillusioned,

You are right on all accounts! You would be more productive if you could deal with these feelings, and people are mean, and leaving academia would help, although not in the way you think.

Here’s the thing. I left academic math in part because people were so mean. They were really mean to me, and especially because I was a woman, and especially because I was married to a man who was highly respected. It was a situation.

But after leaving academics, mostly what I’ve realized is how most places contain mean people, and academics are really not all that good at being mean. No offense to mean mathematicians! But really they are like, small-fry mean. If you want to see hugely assholic behavior, work in finance for a few years.

So I’m wondering if this might help – and it might not, of course – but if you can, engage in the following thought experiment: you have left academics, and you go into some other field, and people are mean there too, except for a few nice people with whom you can bitch about the meanies. Then you leave that job and go in search of another job, where maybe there are fewer assholes but also you don’t get paid as well and there are other problems that come up because of that, or because the job stability is rough, or etc. etc.

Then after that long thought experiment, you might realize that as long as there are resources to be fought over, there will be fights, and the question is how to ignore all the stupid bickering and get some math done, because after all math is beautiful and awesome and it’s not math’s fault that all these people are mean.

Good luck!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My colleagues and I at the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts would like to know why the word “data” is plural while the phrase “big data” is singular.

Your singular,
Big Datum

Dear Big Datum,

OK here’s where I am on this issue. It’s always singular. Always. Look at the data! All the data points to the same conclusion! There might be several data points that offer alternative preferences, but those are outliers. Every time I hear someone say something incredibly awkward like, “Are your organization’s data as clear as they can be?” I just wanna retch. Don’t do it. You just sound like a grammar nazi, and nobody likes those people.

You asked!

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!



Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia gives it up for Polly

Dearest readers. Dearest, dearest readers. Aunt Pythia was just about to crack open her dog-eared google doc of questions when she happened across this Ask Polly column which blew her away (hat tip Julie Steele).

It’s entitled Ask Polly: Why Don’t the Men I Date Ever Truly Love Me? and it’s just about the best advice Aunt Pythia has ever seen for a whole lot of people, men and women. In fact she’s seriously considering stealing certain phrases out of this one column for future use, including the following:

  1. Is it time to stop being so good and start discovering what’s going to transform your life into something big and vibrant and shocking?
  2. Block the “other” from this picture. No more audience. You are the cherished and the cherisher.
  3. Fuck wondering if you’re lovable. Fuck asking someone else, “Am I there yet?” Fuck listening for the answer.

Bravo, Polly! And readers, please go read it.

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice: the nerdy edition

Aunt Pythia is ginormously and ridonkulously excited to be here. She just got back from a nifty bike ride to the other side of the Hudson and took this picture of this amazing city on this amazing day:


The bike traffic on the GWB is not too bad at 7:10am.

OK, so full disclosure. Aunt Pythia kind of blew her load, so to speak, on the sex questions last week, so she’s making do with coyly answering nerdy questions. Because that’s what we got.

I hope you enjoy her efforts, and even if you despise them – especially if you despise them – don’t forget to:

please think of something to ask Aunt Pythia 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.


Hi Aunt Pythia,

I’m a math student at MIT, where you did a postdoc. I’m also into computers, and am considering working in some finance classes. I could see myself being happy working for some big financial company that I don’t really care about, as long as I have interesting problems to work on, make a ton of money, and have bright people I get to work with.

My interests right now are in very pure math, I get chills just thinking about categorical-theoretic concepts. I’m planning to learn commutative algebra and algebraic geometry soon. I’m also likely to take stochastic calculus.

What kind of math did you do? Any tips on if taking the pure math I love will be of use, or at least get me “cred” with financial companies?

I do love math, and seeing that you did math at MIT and have seen this world of things, maybe you have some advice to offer me.

Thank you dearly.

Math Cult

Dear MC,

Don’t do it!

Don’t take the math to get “cred” with financial companies. Do what is sexy and beautiful to you. If you love category theory, do that, then do algebra and algebraic geometry. I did number theory in the form of arithmetic algebraic geometry myself. It’s awesomely beautiful and I don’t regret one moment of it.

Let’s say you do decide to go into the “real world.” At the end of the day, if you can do that math stuff we’ve been talking about, you can learn other stuff too. So I’m not going to worry about you on the technical side of things.

On the other side of things, I’d like you to rethink the idea that you “don’t mind who you work for as long as you have interesting problems.” Is that really true? Once you leave pure math there are real applications of your work, and they affect real people. Shit gets real real quick and stuff matters, and I urge you to think it through some more.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Do all mathematicians visualize their problems? From a logical viewpoint there are a lot of mathematical spaces that don’t map onto an imagined 3d workspace but on limited conversations with working mathematicians they seem to me to do it at least at some stage of problem solving.

(I’m more of a physicist who visualizes nearly everything so maybe I’m misreading them.)

Inner glimmer

Dear Inner,

Most, but not all. I once had a conversation with someone who couldn’t understand my drawing of a geometric map between spaces. I was explaining the concept visually (or at least I thought I was!) but he forced me to write it down with double sums and formulas, and I thought that was the weirdest thing ever, but that’s how it became understandable to him.

In general we do think visually, although we really can’t think beyond three dimensions (even though we pretend we can). I guess time makes it 4. Most geometers I know, ironically, don’t have a very good working sense of 3 dimensions, and definitely don’t have a good sense of direction!

Come to think of it my sample is too small, so I’m mostly just saying that for fun. It would be neat to get actual statistics on that. Maybe if I’m ever pulled into going to JMM again I’ll make people fill out forms. Oh wait, I’m going to JMM this January.

I can ask about this, it’s a nice question! Readers, what else should I poll math nerds on?

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m an American mutt and for awhile I was annoyed when people asked “Where are you from” or “What’s your nationality”. I think I was sensitive to it because kids wanted to narrow down exactly which ethnic slurs to use. But as an adult, mostly people are just curious, and I’m happy to share since I’m curious about them too.

When I meet someone with an accent, I’m curious about them and their background, what it’s like in their home country, how they came to the US, etc.

What is an appropriate way to ask about someone’s ethnic background or country of origin? It seems like you should be able to ask anyone this question; it just seems rude when that person is different from you. Do you know what I mean?

WHy Ask That Rude qUestion


I like the subtle sign-off!

Here’s the thing, I think you nailed it. If your intention is to be mean, then don’t ask it. If your intention is to be friendly and to make a connection, then go ahead and ask it! I always ask cabbies where they come from, and then I get to learn about their countries. I have never experienced someone who doesn’t want to talk to me about their home country, and I’ve made quite a few friends. I’ve been invited to so many countries for visits, and that is always so incredibly generous and sweet! People are amazing.

Of course, some people just don’t do this kind of small-talk, and I get that too. It’s not for everyone. But it’s super fun for us extroverts.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

First off, you’re blog is both entertaining and informative, and you’ve found the sweet spot combination of the two that makes it addictive.

I find your work with the Lede program at Columbia fascinating and relevant to the growing, amorphous “big data” movement. I am a frequent visitor of websites such as Fivethirtyeight, which Nate Silver has rebranded as a news source that derives its stories from statistics and big data analytics. Even other sources, such as The Atlantic, have begun to follow suit and incorporate large statistical analyses into some of their stories. This experiment of basing our news stories on statistics brings hope that we can move closer to the ideal of an unbiased account.

In light of this new format (and your school), what sources do you consider the best? Are there any that you visit to get an insightful statistical perspective on the news. Or do you side with the criticism that many of these sites fuel a sensationalist, biased view of the world intended to spawn viral stories?

Will we ever find the right place for statistics in the news?

Considering unbiased reality in our ubiquitous (news)stories

Dear Curious,

Holy crap, nice sign-off. And thanks for being addicted to mathbabe! All my evil plans are working. Time to start on the next phase… moo-hooo-hahahahahaha.

OK, so here’s the thing. We will never have unbiased accounts. Never. At the very least we will have bias in the way that data is collected.

What I’ve spent the summer talking to my students about is getting used to the fact that there will always be bias, and how we therefore do our best to be at least somewhat aware of them, and try very hard not to obscure them. Transparency is the new objectivity!

This is of course disappointing to people who want there to be “one truth,” but that’s how science is. After a while we get used to the disappointment and we can all appreciate some really good signal/noise ratios.

As for the right place for statistics in the news, I think we’re figuring that out right now, and I’m excited to be part of it. And holy shit, have you seen the new ProPublica work on the Louisiana coast? Those guys are killing it.


Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice: delicious crepes edition

Aunt Pythia is going to brag about something this morning.

Namely, how delicious her crepes are. And here’s the thing, she’s generous and like to share. If you were willing to get to her house at 8:06am on a weekend morning, she’d also make you some crepes with fresh fruit. You could sit right there, between two of her darling children covered in nutella. Here’s an idea of what you’d be getting:

We don't usually fold our crepes like that, but you get the idea.

We don’t usually fold our crepes like that, but you get the idea.

But you aren’t here at 8:06am, are you? Too lazy? That’s what I thought. You don’t get any crepes.

But the good thing about the interwebs is that you don’t have to be awake at any particular time to enjoy Aunt Pythia’s advice whenever you so please. Therefore, feast your eyes on the column and then:

please think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

I am almost out of questions!!!

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,

This is not an Aunt Pythia question, I just want to bring to your attention the following post on math overflow entitled How Does One Justify Funding for Mathematics Research.

Also, I guess you don’t read the Daily News – two Aunt Pythia questions I asked were front page on it, but you hadn’t heard about either (Belle Knox and the philosophy professor at Miami). I just read it to mostly find out about the (violent) crime going on in NYC. It makes me depressed and want to leave this town. It isn’t worth it living here: it is way too expensive to live here, too crowded and dirty, and too cold. Do you ever wish you were back in Massachusetts or Berkeley?


Dear NYDN,

I decided that, by the end of that non-question, it was a question worth answering. And thanks for the link, I’ll take a look!

As far as living in New York City, it’s perfect for me for a bunch of reasons which might not resonate with you. For example, I’ve been hugely fortunate to be living in a great and subsidized Columbia apartment since moving here, so that makes it alot easier.

Second, I like the weather to actually change, maybe because I grew up in Boston. It bothered me in Berkeley not to have an autumn. I love autumn. Plus the people in Berkeley get too soft and can’t handle cold weather. So yes, I’m also kind of a macho weather person, although the weather lately has been too temperate to be macho about.

Next, I really really hate regular commuting, with traffic jams and such, and New York is a place where I can walk, bike, or subway anywhere. That’s so cool! I don’t own a car and I never want to again.

Also, and here’s the thing, I like things crowded and dirty. I like people of all ages and races and ethnicities sweating on each other in the subway. So many people! So many languages! It’s incredibly cool, and I never get enough of it. That’s why I like it when the subway stops for an hour in the tunnel and we all end up missing whatever appointments we had and we talk to each and behave like human beings. That’s New York!

Sometimes I even like it when people are rude to each other (as long as nobody is picking on anyone, which bothers me) because it gets out my urban aggression by proxy: just seeing other people be pushy and pointy helps me find my zen. I don’t know how people in suburbia deal with hostility! Maybe through those commuter traffic jams? Too passive aggressive to me, I want it to be face-to-face.

Finally, as for violent crime, it’s inevitable we have some, but overall it’s an incredibly peaceful city. I’ve never been threatened here. By contrast I was definitely threatened in Berkeley a few times, although the early 90’s was a different time. I feel perfectly fine sending my kids outside to walk around by themselves, for example.

Thanks for asking!

Aunt Pythia


Hi Aunt Pythia,

This is not a question. I just wanted to share this song I heard on the radio this morning with you:

It is called Dangerous from Big Data :)


Big Data Strange Music

Dear BDSM,

Three things.

  1. That video is bizarre and awesome, and I’m not surprised you thought I’d love it, especially considering my above confession that I like violence, although it kind of went too far, but on the other hand they kept it silly, which made it tolerable.
  2. I am through with people sending me non-questions. From now on, everything’s a question. I don’t have enough questions left to remove the ones called non-questions.
  3. Nice sign-off!


Auntie P


Aunt Pythia,

Why should the world care about mathematicians? Note that I didn’t say mathematics.

Alter Egoist

Dear AE,

Great question. There does seem to be an obsession with The Mind Of The Mathematician. Maybe because it represents an extreme of sorts? And because people respect mathematics as an achievement of human culture? But that doesn’t explain all the profiles and such. Not sure. I’ll think about that one. Happy to take reader suggestions on this one!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a tenured professor in a good department with many coauthors both senior and junior to me. Like everyone, I have had some failed collaborations, usually because the project didn’t progress and we mutually decided to abandon it. But most of my collaborators have collaborated with me repeatedly on a number of papers.

However there is one strange type of failed collaboration that has happened twice to me in recent years which I cannot comprehend. Perhaps you and your readers might have some insight as to what is going on.

In both collaborations, I proposed the topic and we had good discussions and some exchange of tex files with proofs. Then one day, complete and total email silence. Both times the silence was in response to a request that might take a little while to carry out and so could easily lead to temporary email silence. It could take time to devise a proof of some lemma or decide that it cannot be proven.

Eventually I send a second email mentioning the same question and asking if there is a concern that we need to discuss. I send a third email completely off topic about something else. Usually, when a coauthor is silent for awhile, switching the topic restarts the email exchanges. When this didn’t work I sent an email suggesting we meet in person at an upcoming conference or at one of our departments (funded by me). Finally, after a few months, I emailed the secretary in their respective departments and asked them to print out a note that they should email me and leave it in their mailbox. Still nothing and so I give up some 4 months later.

Well the first collaborator to leave me in total email silence did this about four years ago. I was told by other people he has done this to them as well. The project was very important to me but I have left it aside unsure how to proceed. Do I finish it alone and just put his name on it and send it to him when he’s done? I wasn’t sure. He is important and somewhat powerful. So I just left the project aside.

The second collaborator to leave me in total silence has also left a third junior collaborator in total silence. The junior collaborator and I worked on a different project together while we repeatedly tried to contact him. We finished our other project and contacted the silent partner about returning to the joint project but there is still silence. The junior partner and I are now returning to the original project but solving it in a way complete disjoint from the approach we had been working on with the silent partner. I do not want any suggestion that we stole work from the silent partner but we cannot delay the project any longer. Not when a junior colleague’s career is on the line.

What in the world is going on with these collaborators? What should I do about the first collaborator? At this point they have been silent so long, I do not wish to collaborate with them again even if they suggest returning to the project. I’ve had multiple collaborators in the past who gave reasonable excuses and asked we that postpone working on a project a few months or indefinitely while they handled a job hunt or a divorce or a new baby. In that case, I can wait. But this absolute silence with no reason at all seems to indicate some sort of mental block.


Angrily Bitter And
Notoriously Dangerously Ornery
Non-Existent Demon


Holy shit that’s the mother of all sign-offs.

Plus it’s kind of an awesome question as well. And super long! That makes up for rather short, non-questiony questions that I was making do with until yours.

OK so I think people are just sometimes lame. They drop off the face of the earth. Maybe they just get cold feet, maybe they have consuming mid-life crises, maybe their spam filters go crazy. Chances are, though, they just get overwhelmed with other projects and don’t quite want to shit and don’t quite want to get off the pot either. It’s your job to make them decide which one to do.

Just in case it’s the spam filter problem, do try calling. Also, try talking to a mutual friend? Poke them that way?

Once you’ve tried all those things, I would be very pragmatic about it. Email them and say something along the lines of, “you have two weeks to respond to this and then we are submitting our manuscript without your name on it since you have not been responsive.”

If you want to be double sure of them having a fair chance to get involved, also write them a letter with that message and send it to their department. Don’t hold it against them, they might be dealing with a divorce or a sick kid, you just don’t know, and it’s best to withhold resentment if possible. But no reason to hold back your publications either.

Good luck, ABANDONED!

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Hello and good morning! Aunt Pythia is feeling well-slept (thankfully!) and happy to be here.

Another Saturday morning means – yes – another ride on the Aunt Pythia advice bus, which is leisurely rolling out of the parking lot with a full pot of fresh brewed coffee ready. Can you smell it, people?!!

Plus, there’s a full kitchen on board (who knew?!) and Aunt Pythia has a poffertje pan in one hand and buckwheat flour in the other, and while we’re sipping our coffees we can also look forward to some sweet buttery deliciousness, kinda like this:

Mine will be a bit larger, the pan I found was actually for Japanese Yakoyaki.

Mine will be a bit larger, the pan I found was actually for Japanese Takoyaki.

Are your mouths watering? I bet they are. Please enjoy the column and your version of Dutch poffertjes, and then:

please think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

I am almost out of questions!!!

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 recently came across a math paper that is blatantly plagiarized; it also appears to be published twice. The paper(s) in question are:

[reference 1]

see also

[reference 2]

The latter is not available online, so I am only guessing that it is the same, but there is strong circumstantial evidence, e.g. same title, same bibliography, comparable length. Compare these to

[reference 3]

starting in section 4.

My question is: what action, if any, is it appropriate for me to take about this? Options might include writing to mathscinet, to the editors of the journals that published the plagiarized papers, or to the employers of the plagiarizer works. One might also consider attempts at public shaming, e.g. by posting my accusations, identifying the author, on your blog? (or rather, by trying to bait you into posting….). Or doing nothing, since arguably it’s not my business anyway.

I do not know the author, do not know anything about him other than these papers, do not work in the same field, expect never to meet him.

Perplexed Reader

Dear Perplexed Reader,

Hmm. This isn’t my field – and wasn’t even when I was publishing papers in academic math – but I think you might be on to something.

Since I have access to the Columbia library system, I was able to look at the first of those two and the other guy’s papers, and I can see that there is a striking similarity in the equations and the stated result. But someone in the field would be a better judge of how similar it is and how likely it could be a mistake. Maybe you are in a close enough field and have already come to that conclusion. It seems you have.

It also seems weird that they guy has published the same paper in two journals, but given that he also has the same exact name on both, it doesn’t seem to be a way to game his resume, right? Because wouldn’t it be weird to have the same name on two papers? With the same abstracts?

So, it’s definitely weird. And that guy is reachable, I found him on the web with an attached email. However, the second guy has passed away.

To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what I’d do if I were you. It’s definitely none of your business in some way, but then again you are likely a mathematician and want the field of mathematics to be kept honest.

Here’s an idea: write to the editor of the journals in question and make them aware of the problem. I honestly don’t think you bother writing to the plagiarizer at all.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,
I just finished my first year of college, and now that I’m back home for the summer, I’ve learned about all the various cool (read: the kinds that I want) internships my high school peers have gotten. Some of the particularly prestigious ones went to classmates whom I didn’t like, and it’s hard for me to not compare myself to them. They were the ones who were pretty, well-rounded and popular, the ones everybody worshipped because they made it to the Ivy Leagues and similar institutions.

This feeling of sadness + inadequacy has hit me quite often in the past, but I’ve been able to quell it by turning to my math textbooks, my sources of comfort. But lately, that technique doesn’t work. I can’t help but feel that my love for math, especially given my mediocrity at it, is just a ruse to cover up my inability to be pretty, well-rounded, and popular–in other words, “successful” like my classmates. Deep down, I believe that I could be a math babe, but I have a hard time embracing it as I am aware that I might one day go down the stereotypical awkward math nerd path–and just fall by the wayside in the eyes of my peers.

What should I do?

Sad Golden Bear

Dear SGB,

Ready for some cold comfort? I got plenty.

First, those internships are probably horrible. They’re probably just getting coffee from grumpy dilettantes. Even if that’s not true it will help to assume it.

Second, to the extent they are rubbing elbows with powerful people, the structure of their position dictates that they be worshipful and grateful to these powerful people. Fuck that, never be worshipful of anyone, especially just because they’re powerful or successful. Gross.

Third, there are plenty of amazing things you can do without a formal setup internship. Back in my day there was no such thing as an internship, so we figured out projects over the summers. I worked at Fair Foods in Dorchester, MA the summer after my first year of college, volunteering and loading trucks. My pay was my room and board, and it was awesome. Go find something meaningful to do with yourself, don’t depend on other people’s organizational skills, because they will only send you to artificially constructed or corporate environments.

Fourth, math skillz are sexier and more valuable than you now know. Plus they last longer than prettiness and popularity. Keep it up and you will eventually be one of the cool kids. Plus everyone always thinks their math abilities are subpar, it’s a good sign that yours are just fine.

Fifth and finally, and this is the coldest comfort of all, being on the outside helps you understand the construct of social stratification and the pain of being excluded. Remember this for later when you are one of the cool kids, so you will always have empathy for outsiders.

Good luck!

Auntie P


Dear Auntie P,

I’ve been following your columns about empathy and the math community. I also just read this and I’m afraid that my boyfriend just isn’t nice!

As you might expect, he’s also not so nice when I try to point out to him how it’s making me feel sometimes. It makes him feel misunderstood. He’s got lots of wonderful traits, and I love him and he loves me. What can we do?

In love with Mr. Unnice Guy

Dear In love,

I am actually in the midst of planning a “how to have a happy marriage” post, so this is pretty good timing. You haven’t given me much to go on, so I’ll just make a bunch of assumptions.

First, here’s the thing, you don’t need your boyfriend to be “nice”. You just need to trust him. He can be a grump and he can even kick cats when they walk in front of him, but if you trust him to love you and to be on your side and to be on your team, then that’s fine, although you might want to extend sympathy with the cats.

But wait, does your boyfriend spend a lot of time criticizing you? Is he truly unkind to you? Then leave him. He’s not on your team. No kidding. And you guys don’t even have kids, imagine what it would be like for you to see him treat your kids like that.

But if he is generally kind to you, and he seems somewhat detached from the world around him, we’re in a gray area. It will depend on how it affects your life. If he kicks your cat, that won’t do. Judgement call, although sometimes trainable – as in, you might be able to train him on some little things. And if you want to know more about the training, you’ll need to give me more precise scenarios.

Aunt Pythia


Auntie P,

Well, it happened yet again. Invited a guy I was crushing on to my party. Seemed to me that he has been flirting with me for a while. At party, he immediately falls for a friend instead. I am so sick of this shit. I am really pretty, smart, funny, etc. Are there somehow just amazing women who are totally unlovable, and what the fuck is wrong with me. I really fear this will end badly once my last shreds of hope and self worth have eroded.

Never The One

Dear Never,

You are totally lovable, don’t forget it. And yes, gorgeous and sexy and brilliant. Just FYI.

Plus, I have some great advice for you, my friend.

Namely, you need to recruit your girlfriends to the cause. What was this friend thinking, and did she know about your crush? I’m guessing you forgot to clue her in, or at least you forgot to emphasize the import.

Do you know what a wing woman is and how to create a wing woman event? Well, I’m glad you asked. I am seriously thinking of writing a book called “Wing Woman” once my other stuff is cleared, but for now I will distill my wisdom into two paragraphs.

Getting laid or finding a datable guy is a community affair. Gather a girls-only version of your party and talk about how you guys can help each other with your crushes. No fair for it to be only about you, you also have to problem solve for other people. Make plans, hold practices in bars or beer gardens or free outdoor concerts of wherever, and make sure there are at least three wingwoman per round, since you don’t want to strand your friends.

And most importantly, at all times maintain a rotation of crushes on a bunch of men, or else the ego crashing at low moments will overwhelm. The goal is to have a response more like, “oh well, his loss.”

Good luck, and keep me posted on your wingwoman work!

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Aunt Pythia’s amazing advice

Well hello there, cutie, and welcome. Aunt Pythia loves you today, even more than usual!

For some reason she can’t pinpoint, but probably has to do with a general feeling of happiness and fulfillment, Aunt Pythia is even more excited than usual to be here and to toss off unreasonably smug and affectionate opinions and advice. Buckle up and get ready for the kisses and the muffins.

The kisses are harder to picture but they are even more delicious.

The kisses are harder to picture but they are even more delicious.

Everyone set? OK, fabulous, let’s get going. Oh and by the way, at the bottom of the column please please

think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

I am almost out of questions!!!

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,

How should one deal with sexism and harassment at conferences?

As a white heterosexual male mathematician, I don’t experience much bias against me in my professional life, but I’ve seen (and heard of) a lot of bad stuff happening against anyone not conforming to this norm, which I think is not only bad for the people who experience this, but also bad for mathematics as a whole, for various reasons.

At a recent specialized conference, one of participants (a grad student) was very obviously sexually interested in one of the other grad students (one of only 2 female participants, my field has some serious problems in this regard), who was clearly not interested (and married).

I didn’t know these persons before the conference, and beyond me saying to the the harassing person that she was married and that he shouldn’t annoy her (which didn’t have any impact of course), I didn’t do anything. I would have liked to somehow help the harassed party feel welcome, and communicate that besides that one jerk people were interested in her mathematical ideas, but I didn’t know how to communicate this to her without making it seem inappropriate. So instead, I kept silent, which feels bad. Is there anything I could do next time I was in this type of situation, besides trying not to be a jerk?

Dr. Nonheroic Observer

Dear Dr. NO,

I gotta say, I love your question, but it’s kind of spare on details. What did the guy do? How much did it annoy the married party? It really matters, and my advice to you depends on those facts.

When I think about it, though, I don’t see why the fact that she’s married matters. Speaking as a 17-year married person (as of today!), married people like to flirt sometimes, so it’s not as if it’s intrinsically harassing for someone to express interest in a married person, or for that matter a single person.

But as soon as someone responds with a “not interested” signal, it is of course the responsibility of the interested party to tone it down.

Let me go into three scenarios here, and tell you what I think your response should be in each.

First, the guy likes her. You said it was obvious he was interested and it was also obvious she wasn’t. Depending on how that played out, it could be totally fine and not at all your responsibility to do anything. So, if he was like, hey would you like to go on a walk? and then she said, no thanks I’m going to get some work done and that was that, then whatevs. Again, not holding anything against someone for interest per se.

Now on to the second scenario, which seems more likely, since you mentioned that he annoyed her in spite of your advice to him. So that means he followed her around a lot and generally speaking glommed on her, which probably means he obstructed her normal interaction with other mathematicians at the conference. This is a big problem, because conferences are when the “mathematical socializing” happens, which very often results in collaboration and papers. The fact that men glom onto women prevents that, and might be a reason women don’t join your field.

Your responsibility, beyond telling the guy to lay off, which you did, is to first of all talk math with her explicitly, so she gets some mathematical socializing done. Also be proactive in introducing her to other people who are good math socializers.

Beyond that, I think you need to tell the guy to stop a second time. Ask the guy to think about why she came to the conference, and what she wants and doesn’t want out of the experience. In other words, make him try to think about her perspective rather than his own dick’s perspective. Who knows, it might help, he might just be super nerdy and not actually an asshat.

If that doesn’t work, and if he is in fact an asshat, I suggest you go to her and ask her if he is bothering you. Pretending not to notice isn’t helping her, and she probably has nobody to appeal to and could use an ally. If she says yes, then with her permission, go back to the guy and tell him he is officially bothering her. I guess that would actually work.

Third scenario is when even that doesn’t work, in which case I would go to the organizer of the conference and suggest that the harasser be asked to leave the conference.

I’d be super interested to hear your thoughts, and in particular what you think would happen if you had actually gone to the organizers. Of course, if you were one of the organizers yourself, I’d say you should have threatened the guy with expulsion earlier on.

Write back and tell me more details and tell me whether this advice was helpful!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Why EW? What is wrong with “He went on way too many dates too quickly”? What makes you the judge of what constitutes too many, when you yourself admit that you “have taken myself out of the sex game altogether – or at least the traditional sex game” so your opinion on traditional sex game (which is exactly what this guy is doing) is clearly biased. He is a modern empowered man who is exploring his options before settling down. What you wrote is nothing different than “slut-shaming” just reversing the gender. I hope you will exercise greater sensitivity in the future posts.



I think you must be referring to my response to Huh in this past column in reference to the alleged math genius who “hacked” OK Cupid. And I think you misunderstand me.

I am all for slutty behavior. In fact I am super sex positive. If the guy were just trying to get lots of great sex with lots of amazing women, then more power to him. I’d tell him about Tinder and I’d even direct him to critiquemydickpic for useful and amusing advice.

But actually he was having one or two dates per day looking for love. What?! That’s way too much emotional drainage. How can anyone remain emotionally receptive if they can’t even remember people’s names? I’d be much much happier for him, and I wouldn’t be judgmental, if he had been bringing home a different woman every night for mind-blowing sex. Youth!!

So, if you want to complain about my “ew”, then I think you’d need to say that, if someone can fuck anything that moves, they should also be able to love anything that moves. I’m not sure there’s a name for this but maybe “love-shaming?”.

In any case, I stand by my “ew”: I don’t think loving one or two people per day is possible. And the woman he ended up with found him, which was different and broke his cycle, kind of proving my point.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a statistician with four-or-so years of work experience, but currently in the last half year or so of a applied bayesian stats PhD. I have seen the rise of R and Statistics as a hot, talked about subject. And for some reason, I am getting nervous about all the new cool kids that play around on Kaggle; that they will take ALL THE JOBS, and that there will be no space for slightly less cool, more classically trained statisticians such as myself. After all, all we’re doing is a bit of running a glm, or a cluster analysis, or some plotting. A monkey could learn that in three months. Sometimes I wish everyone would stay away and let me have all the datasets for myself.

Am I being unreasonably nervous about the future?

Have Stats Want to Analyze

Dear HSWA,

First, I wanna say, I had high hopes for your sign off until I wrote it out. Then I was like, wtf?! I even googled it but all I came back with was the Hampton Shaler Water Authority. And I am pretty sure that’s not what you meant. And keeping the “t” in didn’t help.

Second, I’ve got really good advice for you. Next time you’re in an interview, or even if you’re just on a bus somewhere with someone sitting next to you who allows you to talk, mention that Kaggle competitions are shitty bars for actual data scientists, because most of the work of the data scientist is figuring out what the actual question is, and of course how to measure success.

Those things are backed into each Kaggle competition, so hiring people who are good at Kaggle competitions is like hiring the chef who has been supplied with a menu, a bunch of recipes, and all the ingredients to run your new restaurant. Bad idea, because that’s the job of the chef if he’s actually good. In other words, it’s not actually all that impressive to be able to follow directions, you need to be creative and thoughtful.

Make sure you say that to your interviewer, and then follow it up with a story where you worked on a problem and solved it but then realized you’d answered the wrong question and so you asked the right question and then solved that one too.

I’m not nervous for you, thoughtful statisticians are in high demand. Plus you love data, so yeah you’re good.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve been working as faculty in a new department this year and I have repeatedly had the feeling that the support staff is not treating me the way they would if I were 50 and male instead of young and female (although with the rank of professor).

It’s small things like roundly scolding me for using a coffee mug from the wrong cupboard, or hinting I should make sure the kitchen cleaning is easy for staff (I’m not messy!), or the conference support staff ceasing to help with basic support on a conference (and complaining about me to other people), or wanting me to walk some mail to another building.

I realize this is all small potatoes. But I have started to feel like by just taking it passively (e.g. smiling and nodding) I might be saving myself time and anger now but I’m helping to perpetuate the system. I rigorously avoid confrontation and I think I’m typically regarded as a very friendly and helpful team player by my peers. (How could I prove bias anyway, and would confrontation help?). But I’m not sure I can spend my whole life putting up with small potatoes along with the bigger potatoes I encounter from time to time.

Spud Farmer Considering Pesticides

Dear SFCP,

First of all, again, disappointed your sign-off didn’t spell anything. But will let it pass.

Second of all, my guess is that they are sexist. I have a prior on this because I’ve encountered so much sexism in this exact way.

Third of all, I’m also guessing they are administrative people in academia, which means they are also just barely able and/or willing to do their jobs. Again, experience, and since I am administration now in academia, I am allowed to call it. Some people are great, most people are not.

Fourth, I don’t know why you are “rigorously avoiding confrontation” here. The very first thing you should do is choose your tiny battles wisely and create small but useful confrontation. Examples:

  • Someone asks you to mail a letter. You say, “oh who usually mails letters? I will be sure to bring it to them.”
  • Someone doesn’t want to do their part in helping with basic support on conferences. You say, “Oh that’s not your job? I am so sorry. Who should I be asking for help on this?”
  • Someone scolds you for using the wrong coffee cup or some such nonsense. You say, “I am new here and I don’t know the rules but I will be sure to remember this one! I am one of those people with a strong work ethic, and it’s great to see how people around here pull together and make things happen.” You know, be aspirational.

Fifth, if it comes to it, get a faculty ally to explain which staff are bitter and why, and which of them are juts plain nuts, and which ones do everyone else’s job. Useful information. Make sure it’s an ally! Complaining about this stuff to the wrong person could give you a reputation as a complainer.

Sixth, do not let this stuff build up inside you! Make it an amusing part of your day to see how people wiggle out of their responsibilities and blame other people for their mistakes. And keep in mind that the faculty are probably the biggest and best examples of such behavior.


Auntie P


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

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