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Aunt Pythia’s advice

September 13, 2014

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
  1. lontjr
    September 13, 2014 at 9:51 am

    One thing I would tell MENTEE: Keep track of this candidate’s contact information. if she doesn’t get chosen or doesn’t choose to take the job, contact her via other channels and suggest that wherever she ends up, you’d likely prefer to end up there as well. It’s time to take that kind of chance.


  2. alex
    September 13, 2014 at 10:10 am

    Wow, that is an absolutely gorgeous knitting creation! I love the combination of colors!


  3. Min
    September 13, 2014 at 11:14 am

    In response to the sexist comment about brains:

    Better a butch brain than a pea brain.


  4. Min
    September 13, 2014 at 11:23 am

    To MENTEE:

    If your perfect candidate does not take the job in your company, keep in touch with her, anyway, if you can. OC, neither of you could talk about your actual work, but she may be impressed with you, too, and be able to hire you herself or steer you into good opportunities.

    Best of luck!


  5. Min
    September 13, 2014 at 11:46 am

    To Big Datum:

    Far be it from me to define “big data”. However, please note that in that phrase, “big” does not modify “data”. The data are not big. What is big is the set of data. So if “big data” refers to a set, it is singular.


  6. cat
    September 13, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    Dear MENTEE,

    Let me add to the other voices. Find them on linkedIn or wherever and let them know you were impressed with their talent and would be interested in learning from them. IMO, a junior level person who knows what they don’t know and are willing to learn are great additions so keep in touch and it may workout you can get mentored by her.


  7. cat
    September 13, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Dear Disillusioned,

    People are mean(assholes), they are especially mean to outsiders if it means they have to share things they believe belong only to their tribe with the outsiders. This behavior can make you feel very isolated. You also sound isolated in your letter or that could just be the sadness of realizing your dream isn’t going to live up to your hopes.

    Have you thought of talking to a therapist? I can be very traumatic losing a life long goal, especially if it leaves you without any direction in your late 20’s.


  8. Leila
    September 13, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    The knitting pattern is fabulous! The colors as well. And you were big-hearted enough to *LINK TO THE PATTERN* (which I just bought). HUG


    • September 13, 2014 at 5:29 pm

      I’m not gonna lie, the fourth row kinda gives me carpel tunnel syndrome.


  9. Auros
    September 14, 2014 at 12:25 am

    Data is no longer a thing that can be singular or plural — it’s a mass noun. You can have a lot of data, just as you can have a lot of water. You do not usually see “twelve waters”, except in very specialized circumstances (like talking about several bottles each of which contains a different type of lightly flavored water, or something crazy like that).


    • Auros
      September 14, 2014 at 12:27 am

      PS: For those who aren’t nerdy enough to already know, but are nerdy enough to be curious, the term that contrasts against “mass noun” is “count noun”.

      Once upon a time, there was a count noun “datum”, with plural “data”. But it’s as dead as several countable doornails.


      • Auros
        September 14, 2014 at 12:30 am

        PPS: Of course, this raises an interesting point about combining “data” with “big”. In general, “big” applies to a discrete thing. However, in certain colloquial dialects, often intended to represent non-native speech, you will see terms like “big water”. (Think of how old Westerns might portray a primitive tribe’s description of the ocean.)

        This suggests that the term “big data”, as bandied about by the Suits, is much like a primitive tribe’s understanding of geography. Whereas the Quants actually know how to set sail on those seas of bits.


    • Min
      September 14, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      Both singular and plural uses of “data” coexist today. Pour moi, which way I use it depends on how I am thinking about it, not on any supposed grammatical rule. For instance:

      This data is bogus.

      The data in this printout are overlapping.

      These data are outliers.

      The data from CERN is convincing.

      All the data have been revised.


      • Auros
        September 16, 2014 at 3:16 pm

        The important distinction between the cases you’re describing is still not singular vs plural. You’re reverting to the count form much more often than I do (and I think my usage pattern is more common in modern parlance), but this is still about mass vs count.

        The data is bogus. Mass. Compare: The water is bitter.

        The data in this printout are overlapping. Count. Compare: The lines on this printout are overlapping. However, I would use the mass form here, unless there were two distinct pools of data to point out. Compare: I have some white rice and brown rice, and I’ve poured them into a bowl, such that at the edges of the resulting “pools” overlap. The rices in the bowl are overlapping.

        These data are outliers. Count. And I would agree on the use of the count form here, because “data” is serving as a metonym or abbreviation for something that is definitely countable, like “data points” or “samples”.

        The data from CERN is convincing. Mass. Compare: The rice from Thailand is delicious.

        All the data have been revised. Count. And this is another one where I would opt for the more-commonly-used mass form. All of my data has been revised.


  10. Bobito
    September 15, 2014 at 2:03 am

    For the culturally challenged, it should be pointed out that writing “the data is” or “the data are” is at least in part a US usage vs. UK usage thing. The British also say “the team are doing well” rather than “the team is doing well.


  11. rtg
    September 18, 2014 at 3:52 am

    Aunt Pythia, I normally love your wisdom. But your response to SINGING made me sad. A woman is not asking to be harassed by the clothing she wears. Women are often harassed in “men’s clothes”. And accepting that it’s okay for the STEM community to take women who dress in a feminine way less seriously is accepting the implicit sexism that assumes STEM is a “man-like” endeavor. I support everyone’s right to wear the clothing that makes them feel comfortable. But that means also not making statements that imply negative (or any) judgments about women who don’t like to dress in a “man-like” way.


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