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Aunt Pythia’s advice

August 2, 2014

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
  1. August 2, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    re: letter #1; am surprised by your reticence… I agree no need to contact the author, but if the plagiarism is as clearcut as implied, I think it a mandatory responsibility, at a minimum, to let the journal editor know. Fraud, plagiarism, and even incredible sloppiness that can be documented, should never be allowed a free ride — especially if it’s in your own field, it’s very much your business.
    …and when can you ship me a box of the Dutch poffertjes???


  2. Kari
    August 2, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    I would like to suggest to SGB that being “pretty, well-rounded, and popular” is less likely to lead to happiness in the long-term than she might think. It sounds as though she is focusing on doing the things (such as math) that are more likely to lead to her own happiness, so she should keep on making her own choices, and not worry about being a “stereotypical awkward math nerd”. In my experience, math nerds are pretty cool people, and generally happier with their choices than the popular crowd.

    Cathy, could you expand at some point on what “wing women” actually do?


  3. Min
    August 2, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    I resonated with the letter from Never The One. I agree that she is attractive and lovable, despite the actions of one or more guys. But she may have been the victim of one or more Game Players. From the little in the note it is hard to say, but that is a possibility.

    What are Game Players and what is The Game? For a good reference, see the movie, “Dangerous Liaisons”. (Excellent movie!) Also the book, “Styles of Loving”, which is where I found out about The Game, having been a victim myself. Game Players manipulate and play on people’s emotions. The moves in The Game are the lies and manipulations, and the game is won when the Player gets an emotional commitment from the other person, without making an emotional commitment himself. (The vast majority of Game Players are men.)

    In this case the invitation to the party could be the emotional commitment, and making a play for the friend could be the coup de grace which says, “See? I don’t really care.” (Or maybe not, OC.) In general game players avoid making any commitments at all. So breaking dates or other commitment shy behavior is a major indicator that someone is a game player. Don’t expect to catch them lying, as they are quite accomplished.

    Now it could be that Never The One is unlucky or naive (as I was) but it is also possible that she is especially attracted to game players. In the last case some psychotherapy could help.


  4. Min
    August 2, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    Strangely, I also resonate to the first letter. Not to the plagiarism, but to the double publication. The very first paper I submitted to an academic conference was accepted and published. A few months after the conference the editors contacted me and asked me to submit an extended version of the paper. So I added a few paragraphs that answered a minor question that came to me when I reread the paper. I also added some speculation at the end, which the editors rejected. I don’t think that I changed the abstract. So it seems that I am one of those people with two published papers with the same title, same abstract, same bibliography, and similar length.


  5. alex
    August 2, 2014 at 11:30 pm

    To Sad Golden Bear, I remember when I was in your situation (about 15 years ago), and now realize those internships are exactly as Aunt Pythia described – they are doing fairly boring stuff. Also, well-roundedness is perhaps good for undergraduate college admissions, but after that it’s best to forget about it and specialize. I think successful people specialize – they focus on one thing, and become really good at it, and distinguish themselves from others by doing so – and that’s what needed in graduate school admissions, not well-roundedness. Another suggestion I have is about choosing people to admire and emulate: I understand it is natural to choose one’s peers, but do not choose your high school classmates (they are figuring out life too), choose instead your college professors (especially if you go to UC Berkeley!) They have it figured out, at least more so than your high school classmates. That will also help with your comment “one day go down the stereotypical awkward math nerd path–and just fall by the wayside in the eyes of my peers” – you need to change the peer group you mentally associate yourself with – there are people who think being a math nerd is awesome. Finally, math can lead to a pretty great career, but that’s a bit of a secret because in the media we are constantly bombarded by an image of success being rich and/or famous like an entertainer, politician, wall-street financial types, and I think not enough of case is made for scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, who are in my opinion much more valuable to society, but they don’t make news, which is fine as they don’t want to, but impressionable minds need to know these careers can be fulfilling.
    Also, as a concrete suggestion as to what to do instead of an internship, learn something! Take an online class – perhaps you can then skip having to take it during the school year and move onto more advanced classed, or maybe you can be better prepared to take it during the school year, and make a good impression on your professors.


  6. David18
    August 3, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    SGB might consider learning to program in R and Python if you have not already. You also might consider. Being able to program certainly improves the resume and opens up many future opportunities. Learning to program is very time consuming so doing that in the summer without other obligations can be helpful. In addition, she might consider volunteering in a busy Emergency Room if that is possible. There you learn not only about medicine, but how inner city folks live, as many come there for their primary care treatment. Even if she has absolutely no desire to work in medicine, the experience can be eye opening and educational.


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