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Aunt Pythia’s advice

February 22, 2014

Aunt Pythia has some exciting news.

After spending about 5 days of the last 7 in bed with an awful flu, and finishing off both seasons of House of Cards (with the associated feeling of being simultaneously drowned in cynicism and phlegm), Aunt Pythia started in on Battlestar Galactica, which she honestly should have done years ago.

I just love me some Starbuck!

And do you know who stars in that series, at least in Season 2? None other than yours truly, Pythia the Oracle of Delphi! I am honored, and I hope you are honored by association. Go ahead, feel the honor.

After you enjoy my column (and the honor!) today please don’t forget to:

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.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I gave a talk at this year’s JMM in Baltimore. It was one of those super rushed 10-minute talks. But giving any talk at all sufficed for my university to pay for my travel and lodging. That’s not to say that I didn’t take it seriously. I did. I even dressed nice for it, which I don’t normally do as a grad student and mother of a toddler. I bothered to care about a talk that has only enough time to explain its title because this year is an important year for me. It’s my last year of my PhD and I’m applying for postdocs and jobs. It’s why I attended the JMM.

My talk went well enough. I got a few questions at the end and I didn’t go over my time. And that should be the end of it. JMM is over. I can get back to stressing over my dissertation. But I got an email. An email from someone who was in the audience. He wrote to me that he enjoyed my talk and would like to meet me for dinner. He even added that this is “to be clear, a non-math invitation.”

My first thought was that I should send a reply correcting the many grammatical errors I found in his very short email. But that thought quickly changed into anger. I traveled a very long distance to work. I’m taking time away from my research, away from my 2-year-old so that I can present myself professionally to an audience of my peers and potential employers. I hope and expect to be treated like a real scientist. I remembered all the stories, all of the frustration of so many of my friends and colleagues, scientists who also happen to be women, who were treated with anything but respect just because they weren’t born with a penis. I was insulted, furious that some stupid little boy thought that this sort of behavior is appropriate.

But there was always the small chance that he is, in fact, stupid—in certain ways. After all, this is a math conference. There are mathematicians who, while brilliant, may not have (let’s just say) mature social skills. (Though this guy’s probably not too clever since a quick Google search would have revealed that I have a webpage containing a photo of me and my family and therefore not likely to be interested in dating.)

I replied with an invitation to meet for lunch. So that I can verify that he’s not developmentally challenged and confirm his implied intention. And then yell at him to his face. He didn’t end up showing, even though he sounded eager to meet in the multiple emails he sent following my response. He was probably scared away by the large crowd of my friends that had gathered around our meeting place to support me or, more likely, to witness the spectacle.

Most of the men I spoke to about this incident were sympathetic to the poor idiotic horny kid who clearly had no idea how to talk to girls. They recalled some embarrassing moments from their youth and said that I should have just mercifully sent him a gentle rejection.

I, on the other hand, find his action to be a stark example of how women are not taken seriously in science and feel he should be told that this sort of behavior is not excusable. Granted, a public shaming may not have been warranted. But I think that I am right to feel insulted in this situation.

I’m still thinking about emailing this guy and telling him off. My friend (who is usually a feminist) thinks that while the guy had absolutely no tact and needs some guidance on interacting with other humans, finding a speaker attractive and approaching her at a conference is not wrong. He thinks that had the guy joined me and my friends for drinks after my talk and then later admitted to his interest in me, I would not have been offended. I disagree.

What do you think? Am I overreacting?

Scientista (in training)

Dear Scientista,

Wow, that was a really long question, but I decided to publish it all anyway, because I can see you earnestly want my advice. Not so sure you’re going to like my advice though.

Because here’s the thing, you are absolutely overreacting. I mean, that’s ok, and no actual harm done, but what a huge amount of time wasted at JMM where you could have been doing math, drinking bourbon, or playing bridge.

That’s not to say I like what the guy did, it was definitely obtuse to the point of idiocy, but there you have it, he’s an idiot. Best thing to do in that situation is to delete the email and not give it another thought.

I mean, I guess there might have been a side benefit for the rest of the math community in this planned public shaming, if word had gotten out that this guy had written such an unsolicited and unwelcome email. It might have given pause to the 450 other such emails that happened that weekend. Or not.

Also, I think we should be careful to separate your efforts in preparing your talk and coming to the conference, which were real, from this guy’s sexual interest. I’m guessing that, had you gotten 5 emails talking about the math and how awesome it is, and this email to boot, you would have been able to shrug this one off. It’s the unfortunate nature of short talks that they take a lot to prepare for but there’s little chance of getting good feedback. But let’s not take out that frustration on him entirely.

In one way I’d like to defend this guy: at least he made his explicit desires known. It would have been worse, in my opinion, if he’d come up with some math pretext for meeting and then put his hand on your knee at lunch.

Plus, I’d like to take this opportunity to defend sex at math conferences in general. I mean, it’s one of the classic ways of blowing off some steam after a long day of whirlwind 10-minute talks, married or unmarried.

Finally, and I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh, I’d like to give you some general advice. You are a woman in math, which means you are a warrior, even if you didn’t want to sign up for that. And the best and easiest way to be a warrior is to have a thick skin, to remember the victories, and to ignore the defeats.

And I don’t mean stay quiet about awful, actionable sexism that threatens your job or your responsibilities at work, but I do mean deleting idiotic emails without a second thought, from now on.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Given that the entire financial industry seems to be loaded with unethical behavior, what do you think are ethical ways to invest your money? Certainly choosing credit unions over large banks seems to be a good way for your savings but I am curious about how you would invest for retirement. Do you think there are ethical ways to invest in stocks, bonds, etc?


Serious Pondering About Money

Dear SPAM,

I get asked this a lot, but I don’t have a good answer. And honestly I worry more about people who don’t have any money saved for retirement at all, and are stuck in student or medical debt.

If you really want my advice, I’d say there are three things you could or should worry about regarding savings: liquidity, risk, and ethics. You may have more things you worry about, but this is just a starting point. I’d suggest you divide your money up into those categories, depending on how you weight the associated concerns.

For the liquidity part, keep cash in a savings account (FDIC insured) or a money market account (not FDIC insured). For the risk part, invest in an ETF for the overall market, because we’ve seen that the government props up the market so you want to ride that buffered wave whilst minimizing fees. For the ethical part, track down a company – or even an individual – doing stuff you think is good for the world and invest in it. It’s highly illiquid and highly risky to do that, but you’ve already taken care of those concerns.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Is it OK to review NSA grant proposals?

You might have seen Beilinson’s letter to the AMS notices extolling mathematicians to break ties with the NSA. I kind of sympathize with it. The AMS helps the NSA administer its grants program and I recently got two proposals to referee. These were from young mathematicians that I hold in high regard and think deserve to be funded. As NSF funding is dwindling, if they don’t get the NSA grant they might be unfunded. Moreover, I am knowledgeable about their work and felt that if I turned down the request it would be bad for them, so I decided to review the proposals. Have I done the right thing?

Not Sure Actually

Dear NSA,

I feel your pain. The funding is drying up for these worthy researchers, but you’d rather not feel like a collaborator. Those are directly conflicting issues.

And it’s exactly what I fear when I think of the oncoming MOOC revolution and the end of math research. Who is going to fund math research when calculus is gone? The obvious answer is private companies, private individuals, and places like the NSA. Not a pretty picture.

My best advice for you is to review the proposals because you want those researchers funded – and feel slightly better that they’re doing research external to the NSA – and at the same time get involved with solving the larger funding problem for mathematics. This could mean going to talk to your congressperson about the need for mathematical funding or it could mean spreading the word more generally about the importance of math research.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Auntie Pythia,

The Facebook Data Science folks posted a series of blog posts about love (or at least relationships). As a data scientist and sex oracle, what do you make of the results and/or on the use of social network data for these kinds of studies?


Lots Of Valentine’s Extrapolations

Dear LOVE,

Wow, thanks for the link. I happen to know the author, Mike Develin, of those posts, first because he was a (brilliant) student of mine at math camp way back in like 1993, and second because we worked at D.E. Shaw together – although he worked in the California office.

So anyhoo, I like the posts. They’re smart. The one thing I’d say, for example about the age difference of couples in different countries, is that I have to assume there’s a bias away from older middle-aged couples and towards couples where the husband is old and the wife is young. Here’s a picture:

Who is actually on Facebook divulging their marital status?

Who is actually on Facebook divulging their marital status?

I say this because, even if both members of the couple are on Facebook (and that already skews somewhat young), I would guess older people are less likely to divulge their marital status. That kind of thing makes me think we should look at these charts with the caveat that they are true “in the context of Facebook data”.

In terms of the ethics of this kind of use of aggregated data, I’d say it’s great. The stuff I think is scary is the stuff that isn’t aggregated and is hidden from us.


Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. pjm
    February 22, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Aunt P., When you’ve finished BSG you can see the relevant Portlandia skit.


  2. February 22, 2014 at 9:19 am

    I recommend the BBC House Of Cards; in some ways even better than the Netflix remake.


  3. a
    February 22, 2014 at 10:48 am

    I hope you get well soon, Aunt Pythia! Props for doling out advice despite being sick – it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it.


  4. Christina Sormani
    February 22, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Dear Scientista,

    I do not think you are overreacting. When I was young, I was repeatedly frustrated by this type of treatment. The AWM is currently concerned about the rising reports of incidents like this (and worse) which occur at conferences. People have become cautious of possible sexual harassment charges at their home universities but seem unafraid at a conference. Check out the AWM website for more info about this.

    For your personal situation, I absolutely do not recommend responding with an invitation to lunch. I had a bad experience with that as a postdoc. In my case the guy had not been clear dinner was a date but I felt uncomfortable and really wanted to discuss math with him. I went to lunch and was treated to a series of explicit and crude advances. I’m a but more old fashioned than Aunt Pythia and was seriously offended. I was told later that accepting an invite / inviting someone to lunch was not a professional setting. After that I was ever cautious of never having lunch alone with a mathematician I didn’t know well. Which is stupud nonsense.

    What I would do in your setting is write an email explaining that it is inappropriate and makes speakers feel uncomfortable to invite them to dinner. Explain in oversimplified words as if he is an idiot and show him the AWM policy. If he is an idiot then he will only learn with such an over the top explanation. If he is not an idiot and is deliberately intimidating women, then he will see that his act of aggression failed and he came across as an idiot.

    Finally, if this guy is in any way able to effect your career: eg his dept is hiring you, then don’t send such an email. I managed to avoid such a date with a future colleague just with a very polite “I’m married and cannot go out to dinner with anyone”. He pushed with a few other invitations offering to take me dancing etc and I politely turned each down. It stopped when I joined his department luckily and we got along fine afterwards.




    • February 22, 2014 at 1:51 pm

      Maybe I am missing some context. Here is what the questioner wrote.

      “He wrote to me that he enjoyed my talk and would like to meet me for dinner. He even added that this is ‘to be clear, a non-math invitation.'”

      It seems completely honest, direct, and non-threatening. An email seems even easier to reject without discomfort than a face to face question. This seems very different from your experience, where the invitation was a ruse. Should no one ever date someone they met in a professional context?

      IMO, the policy at my workplace is reasonable. It basically it boils down to that it’s okay to ask someone out as long as you aren’t managing them and you don’t persist after the first no.


      • Christina Sormani
        February 22, 2014 at 11:39 pm

        The problem with an advance like this after a talk is that it can make the woman very uncomfortable about speaking. Very often a woman is presenting in front of an all male audience or 90% male audience. When a woman gets personal invitations like this, following a talk, then she has a sense that these men are judging her looks and sexuality and not her mathematics. Aunt Pythia has always been very comfortable with her sexual nature and has no difficulty being public about it. But many women do not like being viewed as objects of desire while presenting their work. I’ve had a doctoral student tell me she would rather not present again in my seminar because a fellow student told her she looks so amazing that he would love to take her out sometime.

        I cannot tell you how much more comfortable it was for me to finally be old enough and overweight enough to no longer ever attract this kind of interest. I now truly feel that my presentations are 100% about the mathematics being presented. I no longer have to try on suits asking myself if they look too sexy on me.

        It is really not that difficult to avoid asking women out who you meet in a professional setting. Sure your company may allow you to do this, and sure you can just accept the no, but as soon as you ask a woman out: you are conveying to her that you view her as an object of desire rather than a colleague. At the very least you can check if she is married first. Certainly you can include her in casual group lunches and get to know her as a friend. Women are often eager for friends in a work environment. You’ll have time to find out if she’s likely to be interested before ever asking her out. Also, if you ask someone out who is already your friend and enjoying lunches with you and your friends, then you are conveying an interest in her as a whole and not just her as a sex object. But asking a woman out who you have only seen once, while she was making a presentation, is asking a woman out based purely on her looks and treating her as a sex object. Trying to imply that it is about her intelligence with a line like “you are the smartest women I’ve ever met” just comes across as a line. Smart women are used to being asked out by smart men in this way. It gets old.


      • Christina Sormani
        February 22, 2014 at 11:50 pm

        One last point, which I don’t think is something that you would ever do, rrenaud, but is worth keeping in mind. There are some men who like to whisper sexually explicit comments in women’s ears right after presentations or during meetings. This is deliberate sexual harassment meant to make the woman feel uncomfortable. Women with experiences of this sort are going to feel all the more uncomfortable even if a nice guy sees their talk and just honestly would like to date them. If you are the nice guy and you honestly wish to date a woman, then you don’t want to make her feel uncomfortable. You want her to actually be interested in you and come on a date. Then get to know her first. Move from colleague to friends and include her in your group of friends. Tell your friends not to ask her out if you wish, that’ll make her more comfortable anyway. And when she is giving a presentation, don’t make a point of attending just because she is speaking unless there is a reason for you attend the talk.


  1. March 22, 2014 at 10:08 am
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