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Aunt Pythia’s advice

January 5, 2013

After a short vacation Aunt Pythia is back to give out free advice that’s worth every penny. Go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia. Please submit your question at the bottom of this column (pretty please!).

Let’s first go over last time’s question for the readers:

Aunt Pythia,

Why do some foods burn when you stir them? It doesn’t make sense that my rice or pasta should burn when there is still a lot of water in the pot just because I stirred it.

Physics-Inclined Wannabe Chef

The answer to the Chef were interesting and thoughtful, although I’m not sure anyone actually whipped out the pots and ran experiments (including me!).

Leila says it’s not because you stirred it, and moreover the lesson learned is to stir more often, but JSK disagrees and thinks you can burn your rice by stirring. From JSK’s comment:

…the remaining water settles to the bottom of the pan, gradually boiling away and preventing burning at the bottom. If you stir, you distribute the water throughout the “sponge” of cooled rice above. The bottom layer of rice then burns if the heat is hot enough and the water can’t percolate back down in time to prevent the burning.

I’m gonna have to say the jury’s out. We got direct disagreement. Anyone want to produce a Mythbusters-style rice cooking show?


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m going on the academic job market for the first time. I’ve heard a lot of advice, but I’d really like Aunt Pythia’s advice: what three adjectives should I try to embody during my Joint Math Meeting (JMM) interviews?

Nervous in Nebraska

Dear Nervous,

These are going to sound pretty typical but here goes: try to appear confident, interested, and likable.

To explain why I chose those three adjectives, keep in mind that interviewing for a job is a lot like dating. You need to figure out if you like your date while, at the same time, convince your date to like you. Those are two tasks and they are both up to you, they’re your responsibility, and it’s not enough to just do one of them.

So, although you’re nervous, you need to give off “I am not depending on this to work out because I have other interviews” vibes, because first of all it’s the truth, and second of all you need to make sure your interviewer feels obligated to sell the job to you. Otherwise the entire process is all about whether you’re good enough, which is imbalanced. It should be more a discussion of whether it’s a good fit overall. Watch this video to see how that negotiation can look if it’s an incredibly funny, inappropriate, and drunk interview.

At the same time, you need to seem interested. You can’t be indifferent to the job, because that’s the kiss of death from the perspective of an interviewer. Why would I offer a job to this jerk who doesn’t even seem to want it?

Finally, keep in mind that the real question on the interviewer’s mind is whether they’d actually want to be your colleague. You need to seem like someone who would fit in to the department, both mathematically and socially. Now’s not the time to mention weird hobbies, but it is the time to mention caring about how real analysis gets taught (although don’t be too radical). You want to give the impression that you’re fun, professional, and thoughtful about being a math nerd.

I hope that helps! See you in San Diego!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

Do you think stricter gun control laws would really prevent mass shootings?

Only in Oakland

Dear OiO,

Why, yes, I do, and even more importantly I think they’d massively cut down on all shootings. Mass shootings get lots of attention but let’s fact it, they are statistical anomalies compared to the very predictable country-wide individual shootings that we see every day. The overall death toll by shooting in countries is highly correlated to the gun ownership rate:



For me, that is super convincing. However, I’m pretty sure we will need a bit more than true facts to deal effectively with what has become a religion in this country. I’d love advice on strategies to this effect.


Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

Do you have any advice about how to tell your boss that you’re pregnant if you didn’t start the job very long before you got pregnant?

Shy pregnant woman

Dear Shy,

One of the great things about being pregnant is that it announces itself. My advice it to say nothing unless it just spontaneously feels right to do so. Just please don’t feel guilty or awkward towards your employer about being pregnant – it’s normal, natural, and protected by the law.

And please write back with questions about babies when the time comes!

Auntie Pythia


Finally, a question for the readers – I’m interested in what you’ll say:

Aunt Pythia,

If an editor of an Elsevier journal asks you to referee a paper, wouldn’t it be the norm to decline the request instead of leaving it unanswered, or does Gowers’s revolution includes that anyone who has not joined for one reason or another should be shunned and considered a pariah?

Trapped Editor

Please submit your questions here! I’m getting wonderful, high quality questions, but not enough of them, and I’m almost out. Please save Aunt Pythia by asking her something super ridiculous!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. mathematrucker
    January 5, 2013 at 11:28 am

    NPR’s Marketplace did a segment on the gun industry yesterday that includes quotes like this:

    “Twenty-five years ago, if you’d told me that they would have pink guns on the market, and people would buy them, I would have lost that bet.”

    The segment’s main theme is that since guns are so durable and the percentage of households that own them has dropped over the decades, to stay in business manufacturers need to focus on selling more to those who buy them. Here’s the link:


    I’m guessing that one in two households owning guns in 1960 dropping down to just one in three at present, must have something to do with more people living in cities.

    This quote really jumped out from the page:

    “It’s impossible to know exactly how many guns there are. We don’t have a federal registry.”


  2. Zealous Elsevier Boycotter
    January 5, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Dear TE,

    I thought that the disciplinary norm, at least in mathematics, was to passive-aggressively ignore all requests to do things that you don’t want to do, in the hopes that they go away. Seriously, though that sort of behavior is super-rude, my experience has been is that it’s all-too-common. I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s unusual enough for you that you want to attribute it to something other than typical shirking behavior. As a card-carrying Cost-of-Knowledger (Coster-of-Knowledge?) I’m not aware of any dictate that we should be rude to Elsevier editors; I rather imagine that it would be far more effective to decline politely with an explanation for the reason.

    In the meantime, I suggest you move on to a new referee. Then in eight months, when the derelict emails you out of the blue with a referee report after you’ve already accepted the paper, you don’t have to feel guilty that they wasted their time.


  3. Alan Fekete
    January 5, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    For guidance before job interviews, I recommend the (humanities-focused but in many ways generalizable) advice from http://theprofessorisin.com/pearlsofwisdom/ The key message here is how to sound like a professor, not like a grad student
    A recent CS-centric discussion might also have relevance for campus interviews, rather than conference meetings http://matt-welsh.blogspot.com/2012/12/how-to-get-faculty-job-part-2-interview.html


  4. JSE
    January 5, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    I’m a signatory to the Cost of Knowledge petition. When an Elsevier editor asks me to referee a paper I politely decline and explain why. It’s very unclear why you think the norm would be anything else.


  5. Leila Schneps
    January 5, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    I think JSK and I pretty much agree on the rice issue. His analysis is that if you stir, water from the bottom goes up, leaving not enough water at the bottom, so the rice sticks and burns. But that only happens if you stir and then stop. If you KEEP stirring and letting the water back down and making sure the rice isn’t sticking, it doesn’t burn. Moral of the story: either keep checking that the rice isn’t sticking to the bottom, or get a rice cooker. They never burn the rice.


  6. January 7, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    Echoing earlier comments to “Trapped”, I always explain why I am declining, with a link to the Cost of Knowledge website. If it’s at all in my line (I get some very strange referee requests), I add that I would be happy to do free work for the journal once it switches to a reputable publisher.


  7. January 8, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    it would be more prudent to do gun ownership rate / violent crime in total

    a lot of people whom would have used guns in other countries simply use knives and other aspects which still end up in death, while our gun implied crime may be higher the overall likelihood of being hurt may not be. If a person ends up dead by violence does it really matter if it was gun caused or not? I think it is irrelevant, what matters is the fall of incidence not the matter of change within it.


  8. ZHD
    January 11, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    I’m not sure if you’ve gone over this yet, but the Dr. Mark Reid graph you have pictured has since been retracted by the author. It’s surprising how many data scientists reposted that graph without inquiring into the validity of the Switzerland outlier. Reid used false Wikipedia data to create the graph—since it’s retraction he uses more false wikipedia data, but slightly more accurate.

    The actual values for Switzerland are as follows:

    Firearm Related Deaths Per 100,000 people:

    2006: 3.5828
    2007: 3.6582
    2008: 3.2559
    2009: 3.4822
    2010: 3.0297

    Homicide victims (firearm) Per 100,000 people:

    2006: 0.3269
    2007: 0.3394
    2008: 0.2514
    2009: 0.3017
    2010: 0.2389



    • January 12, 2013 at 10:21 am

      I wouldn’t exactly call it retracted, see his discussion here: http://mark.reid.name/iem/gun-deaths-vs-gun-ownership.html


      • ZHD
        January 13, 2013 at 8:05 am

        Haha well honestly, Mrs. O’Neil, just as you are not able to lift the hood on all of the models you talk about, I have not dived in to the specifics of the Reid graph.

        My source comes from the perpetually wise, and citizen of the sovereign-in-question, “ep” from Finem Respice: http://finemrespice.com/node/120

        ep was satisfied enough to cross Reid out of a piece on intellectual dishonesty in which Reid was not the subject. However, ep did note that even after her prodding, and his subsequent retraction, she found Reid to still use data from Wikipedia.

        I find Reid’s appeal laughable: “The above data was what was available on Wikipedia when I wrote this post. It has since been changed.” If this is the standard we hold our scholars to, then sugar, we’re in trouble.


  9. January 11, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    I don’t like guns any more than you do, but it is meaningless to graph death by guns versus gun ownership. It relationship merely illustrates that, if you wish to kill someone, a gun is good tool. It makes better sense to look at “all violent deaths per 100K” versus gun ownership. Africa, for instance, has the highest rate of violent deaths per 100K, yet a relatively low rate of gun ownership so the correlation to guns per se will tend to recede into background noise.


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