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    • CommentAuthorKevin Lin
    • CommentTimeFeb 10th 2010

    Two old questions of mine which keep resurfacing are Cocktail party math and Fourier transform for dummies.

    I'd like to propose closing these two questions. The cocktail party math question has received plenty of decent answers by now. I think there's not a lot of good reasons for it to continue getting every now and then bumped to the top and being distracting to other fresher, better, more important questions.

    The Fourier transform question is just a bad question. It's a good example of a question to which the best response is probably something like "just read the damn wikipedia page". I think this question was one of the first questions I asked on this site, when it was still quite new -- what can I say, the blunders of youth ;-). We should close this question so as to set a good example.

    I'm finally coming around and -- I'm not being sarcastic -- recognizing the prescient wisdom of our benevolent moderators and administrators: discussion-y questions can indeed be a great distraction to the rest of the site and its principal and most important purpose, which is getting math questions answered. Concrete, well-defined questions with definite answers are nice -- when the answer arrives, the asker is happy, the answer is accepted, the answerer is happy, the site moves onto new questions, and the community is happy. When the answer doesn't arrive, the asker is not happy, but the community is still happy. Whereas discussion-y questions and less well-defined, less focused, less concrete questions can sometimes seem to never end, which handicaps the ability of the community to focus on getting newer questions answered. The degree of this handicapping might be small, but it's still nontrivial, I think.

    It is very tempting for me, and probably for many other people as well, to post discussion-y questions; I think this is because there are so many awesome people who could make awesome contributions to such discussions! But let's not forget that probably it is primarily the question/answer aspect of the site that brought so many awesome people here in the first place. Moreover, I think the question/answer character of the site is where the greater value of the site lies. So let us try to preserve that.


    I'm finally coming around and -- I'm not being sarcastic -- recognizing the prescient wisdom of our benevolent moderators and administrators: discussion-y questions can indeed be a great distraction to the rest of the site and its principal and most important purpose, which is getting math questions answered.

    I wholeheartedly agree with that sentence.

    Okay, I've voted to close both of those questions. I chose "no longer relevant" as my reason, figuring that was the least controversial.

    I'll add I was never much good at maths at school and What's so great about blackboards. There's a few others of mine that are borderline and I'll add those to the list if anyone has a strong opinion.

    (Incidentally, Kevin you can vote to close your own questions)

    I submit that these questions should be left on the site, though, and merely closed rather than deleted (Kevin's as well as mine). If for no other reason than to stop anyone asking them again!


    @ Kevin:

    Here are your three main points, aren't they:

    1. Self-critisism: "The Fourier transform question is just a bad question".

    2. Glorifying our wise leaders: "I'm not being sarcastic -- recognizing the prescient wisdom of our benevolent moderators and administrators".

    3. Happy community: "and the community is happy", "but the community is still happy".

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeFeb 10th 2010 edited

    @Kevin. Please ignore "Ironical Observer" since he is not making it obvious what he wants to say.

    I however would urge you to take a stronger look at the list of your questions and introspect a bit more. I have reservations about questions like "What is so-and-so a thing", for instance "What is a topological Space". Also about ones such as:

    Please share any general tips or advice you have on doing mathematical research. How do you identify good problems to work on or to think about? What do you do when you get stuck on a problem? Etc.

    Then, again, I must gently point out:

    Suppose I tried to take Hartshorne chapter II and re-do all of it with non-commutative rings rather than commutative rings. Is this possible? Which parts work in the non-commutative setting and which parts don't?

    The answer would be of the size of at least Hartshorne Chapter II, and perhaps much, much bigger.



    "he is not making it obvious what he wants to say"

    Thanks for your comment. Perhaps I will say something when time comes, and under my real name. Right now: a mathematician who loves Mathematics and not "well-defined questions with definite answers" sees of course a certain danger for mathematical research of young people coming from MO (also note this baleful "reputation" system). And please kindly think: in what kind of society is it common that people praise their wise leaders ?



    first, thanks for not ignoring the modest me :)

    Second, you can just type "Thank you, Great Leader" or something like that in google.

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeFeb 10th 2010 edited

    @Ironical Observer.

    You should note that it is annoying when someone keeps needling you without revealing straightforward what they have in mind.

    If you mean Kevin coming around to the point of view of the moderators who are his seniors at Berkeley, what is wrong with that? In every institution the juniors show some respect to seniors.

    This reputation system is a carryover from vBulletin and other softwares for message boards, and was taken into stack exchange. On which MO was built. It is not the fault of the moderators/admins/creators of MO.



    Thank you also for your comment, and don't be annoyed! I must leave now, I will (most likely) write more later.

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeFeb 10th 2010


    You are anyway anonymous. Why are you hesistating to speak out? What is stopping you? If you were writing in your real name I can agree, it is unwise to take controversial viewpoints in public.


    Ironical Observer did in fact make it quite clear from the start what he is trying to say. He thinks MO is a Maoist sect. I think he is wrong.

    As for the reputation system, I think we all find it a little distasteful (I do), but it helps us keep varying degrees of moderator powers out of the hands of passersby, while at the same time providing a mechanism for conferring said powers onto people who could do some good with them. Like democracy, it's pretty bad until you consider the alternatives.

    As for the emphasis on well-defined questions with definite answers, that Ironical Observer seems to object to, yes, if MO were the only place where mathematics happens it would be stifling. A straight-jacket. But as it happens, mathematics does happen elsewhere, yet there is a need for a place to ask and answer such questions, and MO aims to meet that need. I don't see what's wrong with it. But if someone spends all their time on MO, maybe they should get out more.

    @Kevin & Anweshi (from a long way up): I just want to say that I really enjoyed reading most of Kevin's questions. The ones that Anweshi points out as those "you should look again at" seem, on the contrary, very interesting to me. I feel you shouldn't close them, at least not because "they are not right for this site"!

    It does, however, seem reasonable to close the questions in the title of this thread, for the reasons you suggested. In general, it does seem that "Cocktail Party Math" questions stop functioning effectively (at providing interesting new answers) a couple of months after they are opened. Perhaps there should be some mechanism to automatically close them then?
    • CommentAuthorKevin Lin
    • CommentTimeFeb 10th 2010 edited

    Anweshi: In the question formerly titled "What is a topological space?", my intention was from the beginning really just to ask something like "Is there a construction which generalizes the prime spectrum of a commutative ring, and the Gelfand spectrum of a commutative C^* algebra, and the various other 'spectra' that arise in mathematics?". I kind of screwed it up a bit at the start with some poor wording and not elaborating on what I was really asking. But I think, now that I've clarified a bit, it is not a bad question.

    The question on advice for doing mathematical research was also posted when the site was relatively new. I don't mind if that one is closed now.

    I don't think the question about non-commutative algebraic geometry is a bad one. I asked a question that I am sure many people have asked before. Whereas before MO it would have been relatively difficult to track them down (for example the Rosenberg papers which were only published internally at the Max Planck Institute), we now have a repository of references for (various approaches to) "non-commutative algebraic geometry". It's not like there are any standard well-known books on any of this material.

    Ilya: I agree, perhaps we should discuss possible mechanisms to automatically close certain types of questions after a certain amount of time.

    Also a general comment --- I think that it would be nice if the authors of questions could close their question on their own, without having to have 5 votes for closing. But I haven't thought about this idea very much yet. What might be some of the pros and cons of this?


    I think Pete's comment on closing my two is spot on.

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeFeb 11th 2010

    I have thought about this for a little while, with no luck: what possible good will closing the two questions in the title do? What problem does it solve? What problem does automatically close questions after a certain time has elapsed, or when a certain number of answers have been given, or for any other reason other than the question being inappropriate?

    I think that the bikeshed effect is waaaaay more visible in the disproportionate weight attached to trivial issues such as closing harmless, already existent and very-much-accepted-by-the-community questions than in the actual consequences of said questions on the site!

    Closing the Cocktail Party Math question for the reason that it's "No longer relevant" is absurd. Of course it's still relevant. You will still encounter nonmathematicians who want to know what math is beyond calculations, and you will still have the task of finding something interesting to tell them. Nothing about that has changed in the last 3 months.

    Closing it for the reason that all good answers have already been given is wrong. There were about 18 answers given last year (that haven't been deleted). There have been about 8 answers given in the last 2 weeks, generally by people who are new to MO, and I think at least a couple of those are quite good, far better than some of the answers given in November. There is no pressure to close other questions which have been answered conclusively, with an answer accepted.

    I wanted to post another answer today quite different from any which is there, but I can't. Congratulations.

    You could argue for closing the question because you don't want to see this type of question on MO at all. You can say that it's bad for this question to keep getting bumped to the front page, which is more a flaw in the system than the question. But as is, it looks like closing it is just yet another demonstration of the *poor judgement* often used to close questions and stop communication on MO.

    How do you think the people feel after you close the question they just answered well without giving a real reason? Welcomed to MO?
    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeFeb 12th 2010 edited

    @Kevin Lin. Of course there is no need to close the question on noncommutative algebraic geometry, or the question "What is a topological Space". I was just a conveying of my personal opinion.

    However it is not good that I am having this public discussion with you protected by the cloak of anonymity. It is unfair to you. Therefore I stop myself from saying anything further.

    • CommentAuthorKevin Lin
    • CommentTimeFeb 12th 2010 edited

    Douglas: Well ..... my original intention was to discuss whether to close these questions here with all of you. Note the question mark in this thread's title and the phrase "I'd like to propose...". I was hoping to discuss the possible merits and demerits (such as those you've given) of closing these questions. Note that I didn't even vote to close the questions. Scott Morrison went ahead and closed them. Personally I don't really care what happens either way. I already explained why I thought the questions should perhaps be closed, but I do also see good reasons to keep them open. Ultimately it is up to the moderators and the higher reputation members of the site to decide. Don't forget that questions can be reopened. Again, I was only making a proposal, and I wanted to hear everyone's opinion on the matter. If people think it is better to keep the cocktail party math question open, I have no problem with that.

    Also the reason given for closure may not be the actual reason: when you vote to close a question, there are around 6 possible reasons to choose from. Often these reasons don't really match up so well with the actual reasons.

    I do like soft questions (I've asked a few and posted answers in many!) and I think they are fun and can be useful in various ways, but I am beginning to agree with some of the others on this site that soft questions can be counter-productive to the more strictly-mathematical aspect of the site, which I think is the most valuable part of the site, and which moreover seems best suited to the software.

    Think about it this way: suppose the posts on your favorite blog got bumped to the top every time they were commented on. Then you'd have ancient posts resurfacing all the time, making it more difficult to read or focus on the newer posts, which are presumably the main reason you read this blog.

    Well-defined mathematical questions with well-defined answers won't -- and haven't -- cause any such annoyances.

    A metaphor that popped into my head: perhaps you can think of it like a museum, and the moderators and higher reputation users as curators. We should like to keep the museum interesting by displaying interesting new exhibits. When a museum closes down a temporary exhibit, it's not because that exhibit is uninteresting or anything like that, it's just because there is only finite exhibition space, and the museum would like to focus on the fresher stuff.

    • CommentAuthorKevin Lin
    • CommentTimeFeb 12th 2010

    Anweshi: This seems to me a totally ordinary and benign discussion. I don't see any reason for you to leave.

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeFeb 12th 2010 edited

    @Kevin Lin.

    Ok, if you feel so, here is the rest: For your "topological space" question, it seemed you were going through the kind of thoughts that must have prompted Grothendieck to formulate the topos theory.

    There you used terminology like "shape-y" or "neighborhood-y", etc.. It made me squirm somewhat. In published papers etc., such intuitive pictures are most of the time swept under the carpet. When you mentioned them explicitly, it made me feel a bit out of place.

    This is not an objection to the question itself or whether it is suitable for MO. It was about the style of language you used. Of course, I can understand to some extent that when you get to a subject like algebraic geometry and its foundations, it becomes a torrid mix of philosophy and mathematics.

    The objection to the "noncommutative space" question was that you were asking about how much of one whole chapter of a book would carry over to a noncommutative situation. For a proper answer to this question, one must list all the definitions, lemmas, propositions and theorems, and for some spice, the exercises too, and describe which exists in the noncommutative domain as of now. You must agree that the answer as you required it, is going to be big. Nevertheless I agree that something useful came out of the given answers. Still, my objection prevails. This is again not a point of it being suitable to MO or not; the question just seemed too big for me.

    As for the career question, since it does not seem to be getting bumped to the top, it not doing any harm to the site.

    • CommentAuthorKevin Lin
    • CommentTimeFeb 13th 2010

    Anweshi: Thanks for your comments. Yes, I do now realize that my topological space question might have sounded more philosophical than I had intended, and I see how it might be thus slightly discomforting. It really was not my original intention to be philosophical though, and I hope that, after my clarifications, people take any possibly philosophical aspects of the question to be secondary to the mathematical aspects.

    As for the ncAG question, here's the thing --- ncAG is decidedly a very nonstandard topic that most people (at least most people I know) seem to know almost nothing about. The bad-ness of that question I think just comes from the fact that I simply did not know whether a quick/concise answer was possible or not. I simply had no idea, having never studied any, e.g., noncommutative ring theory, which also is a fairly nonstandard topic (at least among the AG crowds that I am in). From the answers one of the things I've learned is that a short and easy answer is probably not possible, but a priori I simply did not know this.

    I want to add though that I think, contrary to what you seem to be saying, it is entirely possible to give a good picture of many parts of mathematics without having to be rigorous in the strict sense, and without writing out lists of definitions and lemmas and propositions in a Bourbaki style. Of course, in a published paper in a serious journal one must be rigorous, but I think that another reason why this site is so valuable is that it is a place where one can learn more about the not-necessarily-rigorous intuition and ideas behind various mathematical concepts and theorems which are harder to get from publications.

    While now (in hindsight) I agree that the question is a bit "big", I should hope that people would think that I am a reasonable person who doesn't expect a huge treatise on ncAG once I've been convinced that one would be necessary to properly answer my question, and once I've been convinced that the question is "bigger" than I had thought it might be. I would be and am very happy with just the general idea for "big" questions like this, and I think the same is true for lots of people.

    • CommentAuthorKevin Lin
    • CommentTimeFeb 13th 2010

    Apparently, according to Pete L. Clark in one of Andrew Stacey's questions, there is some sort of a community/oligarchy consensus on some of the things I said in the original posting in this thread. However, as yet there haven't been too many responses to this thread indicating that such a consensus has been reached.


    Oh, the irony! I've just earned "Notable Question" for "I was never much good at maths at school" after it was closed!

    On a serious note, I think that the fact that there hasn't been a howl of outrage about the proposal to close these questions after a certain time says that a consensus of a sort has been reached.


    I have thought about this for a little while, with no luck: what possible good will closing the two questions in the title do? What problem does it solve? What problem does automatically close questions after a certain time has elapsed, or when a certain number of answers have been given, or for any other reason other than the question being inappropriate?

    It can certainly happen that a question becomes a nuisance, like the jokes question. Eventually, the answers kept coming, but they were bad and nobody wanted to see them. In this case, I think taking the question "out of circulation" by voting to close it is perfectly defensible. I did request a feature that would allow moderators to "sink" a question, preventing it from jumping to the top of the home page whenever another answer comes in, but I'm also pretty wary of such a feature since calling attention to old questions with new activity is a very important part of the SE software working well.

    Closing it for the reason that all good answers have already been given is wrong. There were about 18 answers given last year (that haven't been deleted). There have been about 8 answers given in the last 2 weeks, generally by people who are new to MO, and I think at least a couple of those are quite good, far better than some of the answers given in November. There is no pressure to close other questions which have been answered conclusively, with an answer accepted.

    If a question isn't a nuisance, I agree there's no reason to close it, and you're welcome to present an argument that a question should be reopened, but it's definitely important to rotate out old "fun" questions to make room for new ones. People get bored of the old ones and I don't think it really does any injustice to newcomers. It's more important to keep the MO community humming along happily than it is to allow every possible opportunity for every question to get answered in every possible way. If a question is getting annoying to MO regulars, I would defend closing it.

    @Kevin: I really like that metaphor. I hope you don't mind if I use it.

    • CommentAuthorKevin Lin
    • CommentTimeFeb 14th 2010

    Of course I don't mind.

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeFeb 14th 2010

    @Kevin Lin.

    Yes, we want to be like philosophers who give an explanation for everything, but unfortunately we are mathematicians who rely a lot on precise expressions and computations with them. We vainly seek the underlying meaning of things, whereas in actual fact we are forced to subjugate our thoughts to results of brute force computations, etc.. This is an often recurring topic I have thought of. Computations, precision etc. give the truth, but inner meaning is philosophy which may not be as accurate as computations.

    I think Grothendieck is one extreme example of philosopher-mathematician. Euler might be an example of the other end of the spectrum, comprising of computational moguls.


    Rota also touches on the mathematics/philosophy divide in his book Indiscrete Thoughts. Incidentally, I learned of this book through this community.

    • CommentAuthorKevin Lin
    • CommentTimeFeb 14th 2010 edited

    Anweshi: I think you will agree that "philosophy" (say a la Grothendieck) has lead to plenty of "computational" advancements, and also vice-versa.

    Even from just a "practical" viewpoint, "philosophy" has shown itself to be very useful, giving a basis for certain parts of, for example, the proof of the Weil conjectures or Fermat's last theorem. Without the "right" viewpoint on algebraic geometry, perhaps we would not have proven WC or FLT. So I do not really understand why you would squirm at words like "shape-y". I just mean that these sorts of "philosophical" considerations can be, and have been, extremely useful even if you do not care for "philosophy" proper.

    Furthermore, don't forget that mathematics is something which is done by people, many of whom (like me) have trouble even remembering math concepts without some sort of intuitive idea behind what's going on. So, again just from a practical viewpoint, you can think of "philosophy" as something which gives some mathematicians some mnemonics by which they can remember complicated math concepts :-)

    Anyway this is getting quite off-topic. If you want to discuss further feel free to email me.

    • CommentAuthorAnweshi
    • CommentTimeFeb 15th 2010

    @Kevin Lin.

    It was just my personal opinion and as personal opinions of an anonymous guy goes, it shouldn't be taken too seriously. It would have been another matter had some more people supported my views. Since it didn't happen, you might just as well ignore this.


    My old question "Theorems for nothing" was just brought up in another thread as an example of a "big-list" "soft-question" which prompted me to go back through my old questions and look again to see which I would ask now and which I wouldn't. I've consequently voted to close the following questions:


    This doesn't seem to have bumped them up on the front page, which is good, but which means that the fact that I've voted to close them may not be apparent to non-moderators (I forget if 10k people can see this list) so I thought it appropriate to mention it here so that anyone else who thinks that these aren't good MO questions can join in the fun of closing them.

    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeJun 23rd 2010 edited

    I thought it appropriate to mention it here so that anyone else who thinks that these aren't good MO questions can join in the fun of closing them.

    =D! This is my kind of fun!

    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeJun 23rd 2010 edited
    Andrew, Harry, please spare the dimension leaps very nice question... (I was 20 seconds too late) bad call guys...
    I have voted to close two of my old questions. I found the answers very helpful, and I definitely do not think they should be deleted, but I no longer consider them the type of question that should be asked on MO (for being too broad).

    Following Andrew Stacey, I am posting the links here for others to close, if they agree with me:
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeJun 23rd 2010 edited

    @Akhil Mathew:

    I'm sorry, I disagree. Those are fine questions with both good answers and a purpose. I mean, I'm not usually one to say this, but I am against closing good questions. There's no reason to get so radical.

    I may be somewhat strict in my interpretation of the FAQ, but only with questions I think are soft and questionable.


    I see that I've given the new moderators a chance to exercise their new powers!

    Gil, I still like that question. I just don't think that it is appropriate for an MO question. One killer for me is: who's going to find it who doesn't already know about it? It's a much better blog question/post, but I don't have a blog! Note also that there'd been no activity on that question for a long time and it is still there. It's nice that you liked it - indeed, I like all my questions to some degree and all of them had a purpose, but some of them didn't achieve that purpose on MO.


    @Akhil: I'm with Harry on this one. The point about my questions that I've nominated for closure is that I wouldn't ask them now. My other questions then I think I would still ask, even though not all of them got good answers. So the idea is not to close questions that have run their course (though that's the reason I give on the actual question) but to close questions that I think should not be asked on MO.

    Oh. Hm, did I get carried away? The reason I voted to close them was that I wouldn't ask them now on MO; I'd instead walk up to an algebraic geometer and ask him or her in person. The *answers* I got were definitely fantastic (especially those of VA and Greg Kuperberg on my spectral sequences question), and I definitely would like them to stay up for others to read. But those particular questions of mine were entirely beginner level and more wiki-style; today I'd feel funny asking them on a site that's supposed to be about clearly-defined research-level questions (I asked them a while back, when the site was younger).

    Then again, if people think they're ok, that's also fine with me :).
    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeJun 23rd 2010 edited
    Dear Andrew, I suppose that I am more in agreement with Andrew-Stacey of three months ago than with you at present. In any case, I only asked for a single question from your list (about dimensions) to be left alive since I thought this particular problem is not only a very good MO problem, but it deserves some additional answers and it makes a useful resource. There are various ways people can get to the problem; (various searches, through the big-list tag, and it is on 15 people favorite list).

    If there is no activity on a problem then there is no reason to close it, and if there is a fruitful activity then there is certainly no reason to close it, so just to close it to make a point w.r.t. a different meta thread is not a good reason. In addition, like Akhil, you and the other guys who rushed to close the questions could have waited for some reactions by others.

    @Akhil. The algebraic geometry question has helped me alot.

    @Everybody: I think we shouldn't get carried away in closing soft questions. Where else for example can one ask a question like the Roadmap question? Where else can one get the same number of quality answers? Is this not of interest to research mathematicians working in fields close to AG?

    • CommentAuthorChuck Hague
    • CommentTimeJun 23rd 2010 edited
    Dear Akhil,

    I think your two questions are good and well-written, and shouldn't be deleted -- they both would be useful to many mathematicians. When I mentioned "soft questions" in the other thread, these weren't the sort of question I was referring to; in fact, I wouldn't even call your questions "soft." To me, a soft question is a big-list sort of question ("Who was the most/least influential/interesting/etc mathematician?") or a question that can't be answered ("What is the best way to do mathematical research?"), and I don't think either of your questions fits that description.

    Also, although your questions might not be "research level" for, say, an algebraic geometer, they certainly would be for people in other fields who are not algebraic geometers but might like to use some algebraic geometry tools.
    • CommentAuthorCSiegel
    • CommentTimeJun 23rd 2010
    I'm in agreement with those disagreeing with Akhil. I think the roadmap questions are fine (notice that I asked a question modeled on yours, and I would ask the same question now, had I not learned the material some other way!) The spectral sequences question was also good. And I've become more conservative with regards to which soft questions I think are appropriate to MO since things got started, much like Andrew has. But although the roadmap question may not have a single correct answer, I think MO is a great place for it, and the spectral sequences question can definitely be answered, and has been!
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeJun 23rd 2010 edited

    In general, if you're curious about what the strictest people on MO have to say about a question, you can always ask Scott Carnahan or Anton, or if they're not around, either Andrew Stacey or me (not to inflate my role too much =), it's just that the four of us are generally among the first people to vote to close (if I've left anyone out, I apologize)). I'd say that if any one of us thinks that the question is fine, you're pretty much guaranteed not to run into any people voting to close.

    If you don't care what we think, you can always poll the community on meta.


    I just reopened the dimension-leaps question, using my moderator superpowers, because I'm feeling arbitrary and dictatorial this morning.