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    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011
    MO and other mathematics internet activity are quite similar to "real life" mathematical activity. (And, for examples, some meta discussions are not unsimilar to discussions say in department meetings and such.) It is a little strange to realize how MO which is essentially an altruistic system, a platform for mathematicians to help each others by answering questions have become quite competative. And the competition can be at times a bit unpleasant. Maybe this is the way we are programmed. But the competative aspects does give some incentives for participation and as such it is instrumental. What I find a little problematic is that the system encourage quick answers and also that the system encourage much participation, perhaps too much. But these concerns apply often to "real life" science as well.

    Overall, I see the badge system which is multidimensional as an improvement to the one-dimensional reputation system. Sometimes, I look around for good 9- and 24- voted answers to give them an extra vote and thus endow the contributor with a nice badge. I suppose most people (me included) are (overall) pleased to get a new badge. (But I am aware that a few participants prefer not to be decorated and Andrew's struggle to avoid a silver badge will long be remembered.)

    Siliness, in general and the little silly incentives in life, in particular are, of course, an important and serious issues.

    @gilkalai: I have not seen any evidence of competitiveness on MO. Do you have some examples in mind?

    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011
    Dear Qiaochu, you got me confused. Unless you are joking can you explain what do you mean by the word "competitiveness"? --Gil

    You say

    It is a little strange to realize how MO which is essentially an altruistic system, a platform for mathematicians to help each others by answering questions have become quite competative. And the competition can be at times a bit unpleasant.

    but I have to admit I have not seen evidence of this. Do you have examples in mind?

    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011
    Qiaocho, ok let me resolve our difference in a mathematical way and rephrase what I wrote.

    "I conjecture that MO activities (to a small extent because of the reputation system but mostly because of other reasons) manifest a considerable amount of competitiveness. (Occasionally to the extent of it being unpleasant.) If the conjecture is true this is a little strange given the altruistic nature of the basic idea behind MO."

    (Let me just clarify that I dont see anything wrong with competitiveness, in fact there is a lot to say in its favour.)
    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011
    One man's competition may be another man's battle. One woman's (possibly unsympathetic) revision may be another woman's desire to improve. I suspect GIl Kalai's remarks may have their meaning substantially altered with but a minor shift in perspective. If (to explain Gil's remarks) more specific examples are presented and examined, it may turn out that all are very human examples of activity, and (in my opinion) should be considered from many perspectives or from none.

    Gil's perspective is interesting and has value; I suspect the contrast and strangeness he sees can be easily reduced by shifting perspective.

    Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.02.03
    • CommentAuthorfedja
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2011
    I believe that MO is as much a social site as an information one, and like any social gathering, it has some loose set of unwritten rules that cannot suit everybody perfectly. You enter, you dislike some rules, and you have 3 options: to accept grudgingly, to try to change them in a civilized manner, or to leave. The point is that if you do not enter, you neither can change the rules, nor have any real power or even right to promote the change. So, if somebody says "I don't enter because some rules are silly", my answer would be "and why should we bother changing them for you if the system works for people who are currently in and you haven't made any noticeable contribution to any discussion?".

    The competition would be there even if there were no reputation points or badges. I view the badges just as some vague description of the poster's general character. Of course, the names like "Necromancer" are silly, but if you think of it, the name "table" for that flat thingy with legs is rather silly too. Take names for what they are: the labels that allow the verbal communication without directly pointing at the objects, and don't transfer the meanings by name without thinking. I see nothing wrong with the public information of the kind "20 of this person's answers have vote counts of 10 and higher" or "that guy likes to answer long abandoned questions". That's all that the badge counts really convey, if you stop and think of them. The software designers just didn't want the whole thing to look too damn serious, so they came up with what looked like funny names. Of course, nobody is required to share their sense of humor, but it is fairly easy to get used to the badge dictionary and, if sufficiently many people agree that some name is essentially better than the current one, to repace a few characters in the database is not an unsurmountable programming challenge.

    Is mathematics serious? Probably just a bit more than the life in general, and the latter cannot be taken too seriously. Every time I hear the word "platypus", it makes me smile. It adds to the fun that the animal itself looks just about as ridiculous as its name sounds. Still, they've been on this planet longer than we, humans, so, from some higher perspective, our fight for who will prove the Poincare conjecture first is not much different from the fight for who will get more (or less) badges for his answers and the God's view of us is, probably, the same as our views of some exotic animals. And if so, why should we take ourselves more seriously that the God takes us? Play the game if you like it, don't play it if you don't, but don't declare that some harmless game is silly because such declaration is, well, just silly, especially in the world where much more dangerous and senseless games are considered "a serious business", a "matter of honor", etc.
    fedja, nice response.
    • CommentAuthorEmerton
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2011

    Dear fedja,

    I think one's view on platypuses (the name and the animal itself) differs depending on where you grew up. I've always found the name euphonious, and the animal itself quite beautiful.

    Best wishes,


    Argh, I still haven't seen a live playtpus. Monotremes are the largest branch of the tetrapod tree of life where I haven't seen a single one.

    As far as I know, if you're bitten by a platypus you won't find it funny at all.

    • CommentAuthorRyan Budney
    • CommentTimeFeb 8th 2011 edited
    A platypus does not have teeth, perhaps you're thinking of their "ankle spurs", which are venomous and produce a variety of venom that cause humans trouble.
    • CommentAuthorEmerton
    • CommentTimeFeb 8th 2011

    Dear Harald,

    If you are on the same continent as a platypus, there are very many much more venomous (and much more common) animals to be concerned about.

    Best wishes,



    Ryan, Emerton: You're both right of course. (I am at almost the opposite end of the globe from said continent.)