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August 9, 2009

What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Posted by John Baez

Steven Krantz asked me to write an opinion piece about math blogging in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. I asked if I could talk about this column on my blog, and even have people comment on drafts of it before it comes out in the Notices. He said okay.

So, just to get the ball rolling, let me ask: what do you think mathematicians need to know about blogging?

We should probably focus on the mathematicians who aren’t already blogging and perhaps don’t know much about it — since the ones who do, don’t need to read the Notices to learn about the issues.

What do you think these mathematicians should know? You can probably count on me to deliver the basic story of how math blogs have evolved, and some of the places they’re going now. You can be completely sure that I’ll talk about adventures like the nnLab and the Polymath projects. But what else?

Of course I don’t promise to follow all your suggestions, especially since I have a measly 800 words to say everything! But still, it seems like an interesting question: what should the ‘silent majority’ of mathematicians know about blogging?

Posted at August 9, 2009 6:50 PM UTC

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120 Comments & 1 Trackback

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Cranks. With the ease of the internet, they’re around a lot more than just in unsolicited manuscripts in your mailbox.

No matter what you say, no matter how innocuous, there’s going to be someone who will take dire offense to it, and will not hesitate to let you know. What you need to know as a blogger is that just because one attacks you it doesn’t mean there aren’t a hundred people silently agreeing. Politely, firmly turn the crank aside and ignore him (or ban him if you know how) if he keeps coming back.

Posted by: John Armstrong on August 9, 2009 7:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I’m not sure I agree with the spirit of this comment.
First, most math blogs aren’t about opinions per se, but about math- so what is there to take offense to? If a blogger strays from math into social sciences, they should be able to deal with controversy, which is a part of those fields.
Secondly, I’ve seen people named as cranks (and trolls) prematurely- consider how some people reacted to Gina.
Third, as long as they don’t post 500 comments, I don’t think cranks do any harm- and they’re our fans. As a musician doesn’t despise fans for not being musicological experts, we shouldn’t despise our fans, even those who haven’t the faintest notion of what “real mathematics” is really all about.
I think the “threat” of cranks is often over-rated.

Posted by: Daniel Moskovich on August 11, 2009 1:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Dan, I had someone chewing me out for over a hundred comments over the fact that I used the differential mean value theorem to prove the fundamental theorem of calculus. He took real offense to the suggestion that the one had anything to do with the other.

For another example, look at the vitriol in some of the earlier comments on Tao’s puzzle about the blue- and brown-eyed islanders. Half the group caling the other half stupid for not seeing what was simple logic, and the other responding in kind.

Posted by: John Armstrong on August 11, 2009 2:15 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

A case in point

This “notedscholar” person has carried on some sort of grudge against the mathematical and scientific “establishment” for years now. He’s a perennial gadfly, and I’d hoped his long silence indicated he’d gone to some new lunacy.

And yet you can take a look for yourself, Daniel: I didn’t “stray into social sciences”, and he’s certainly not a fan. I don’t have any interest in providing him with a soapbox from which to spout his inanities and rail against my career – and yours as well, I might add. And people getting into this weblog thing should be warned that they’re going to run into guys like this, and that they shouldn’t take it personally.

In fact, I would usually have deleted this guy’s comment and placed his latest fake address into the ban list. Since it’s such a great example, though, I’ve just disabled the link to his own weblog. If you really want to, you should be able to find it by clicking his name and deleting the obvious bit of the URL that comes up.

Posted by: John Armstrong on August 19, 2009 6:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

So where is “notedscholar“‘s blog?

The question he asked:

“What if I don’t want to ” take the singular value decomposition”? Your entire argument collapses.”

In response to John’s argument

“Okay, let’s take the singular value decomposition and do something really neat with it.”

Is rather familiar among questions asked by students. A similar question was on my blog in this post and there is an even more similar story(or a profound philosophical joke according to Wittgenstein) from Littelwood’s Miscellany.

Schoolmaster: suppose that x is the number of sheep in the problem.

Pupil: But, Sir, suppose that x is not the number of sheep.

Anyway, having such an experience on your blog, John, (and the earlier one the fundamental theorem of calculus) is a sign of prominence! I dont have such experiences on my blog.

Posted by: Gil Kalai on August 21, 2009 4:20 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I don’t know where Littlewood was going with that little story, but the teacher could have averted the problem by saying, “Let x denote the number of sheep.” The problem with the “suppose” construction is that the phrase “suppose that x is y” can mean “assume that x agrees with y” or “let x denote y”. In fact, I would say that the first is the primary meaning and that we only consider the second when the first doesn’t compile, for example when x doesn’t already have a meaning, which is the case in Littlewood’s story. (At least one assumes. Otherwise, what’s the point of the story?) I try to avoid using such supposes in my own writing.

Posted by: James on August 22, 2009 2:16 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I am not sure if this could help much. The pupil could say: But sir, what if x does not denote the number of sheeps. Beside the philosophical point there is another point that for most people, sometimes even scientists from other areas, mathematicians notion of proof is quite unclear. (And sometimes even basic logic.) Mathematicians are often not aware of it.

Posted by: Gil on August 22, 2009 8:05 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

A variation:

Professor: Let pp denote a prime number.

Student: But what if pp is not a prime number?

Professor: Well, then, we wouldn’t have called it pp.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on September 4, 2009 6:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I don’t see why you need to respond though. A blog isn’t a phonecall or even an e-mail conversation, in that I don’t think there’s a problem in not responding. If somebody posts something really useful, but you have nothing of substance to reply- one does’t need to reply. Conversely, if somebody posts something really silly, and one cannot add content by replying, there is no reason to reply either.
The larger question is the etiquette of running a blog, and how one sees one’s status via-a-vis one’s readers. As blog readers, they are not students, nor are they colleagues- they are either customers (implying that they would deserve customer service) or fans (which would not imply that).

Posted by: Daniel Moskovich on August 26, 2009 6:12 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Here at the nn-Café, a lot of people responding to my posts are colleagues — either colleagues in a very literal sense, or ‘colleagues’ in a more general sense that includes anyone seriously interested in advancing understanding of the subjects being discussed.

Maybe ‘colleagues’ isn’t quite the best word, but it’s a lot better than ‘customers’ or ‘fans’. There’s a kind of collegial atmosphere — we’re fellow researchers exploring the universe. So I do feel an obligation to reply when someone posts something helpful, even if it’s just “Cool!” I don’t always do this. But it seems a bit rude if someone puts effort into explaining something interesting on a thread I originated, and I seem to ignore them.

Posted by: John Baez on August 28, 2009 4:59 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Ha, that guy is hilarious!!!

Surely, surely, he's not serious?

Posted by: Toby Bartels on August 19, 2009 9:51 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Maybe he’s not, Toby, but he’s functionally equivalent to someone who is.

Posted by: John Armstrong on August 19, 2009 10:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Anyone interested in starting a math blog and wanting to avoid heated arguments with annoying people should learn not to say things like this:

He’s a perennial gadfly, and I’d hoped his long silence indicated he’d gone to some new lunacy.

or this:

Ha, that guy is hilarious!!!

Surely, surely, he’s not serious?

The more you want to say things like this, the more it means you shouldn’t.

Posted by: John Baez on August 20, 2009 3:01 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Speaking though in defense of both John’s and Toby’s reactions: the fellow he’s referring to, who goes by the moniker ‘notedscholar’, has baffled people ever since he first started a blog and began commenting on those of others. Apparently, most people who have thought about the matter seem very sure that his blog is pure satire, and is wickedly funny at that. (The alternative, that he really believes what he writes, seems to the same people just too far-fetched.) I for one have never been so certain – I cannot find the slightest trace of a wink to anyone that he’s just kidding around. (Most satire blogs have a subtle way of letting savvy people know. He doesn’t do that AFAICT.) I’ve wondered aloud whether he’s the Andy Kaufman of the science blogosphere. He has repeatedly assured people that he means everything he says.

So he could be a troll in the oldest Usenet sense, or not, but either way his behavior has gotten a little old for some people’s taste, and either way, it’s pretty much impossible to believe that his intent is not to provoke. Perhaps the safest advice would be to ignore him completely (as I think many are now doing).

Posted by: Todd Trimble on August 20, 2009 12:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

So where is “notedscholar“‘s blog?

The question he asked:

“What if I don’t want to ” take the singular value decomposition”? Your entire argument collapses.”

In response to John’s argument

“Okay, let’s take the singular value decomposition and do something really neat with it.”

Is rather familiar among questions asked by students. A similar question was on my blog in this post and there is an even more similar story(or a profound philosophical joke according to Wittgenstein) from Littelwood’s Miscellany.

Schoolmaster: suppose that x is the number of sheep in the problem.

Pupil: But, Sir, suppose that x is not the number of sheep.

Anyway, having such an experience on your blog, John, (and the earlier one the fundamental theorem of calculus) is a sign of prominence! I dont have such experiences on my blog.

Posted by: Gil Kalai on August 21, 2009 4:17 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

So where is “notedscholar”’ blog?

I won’t link to it. If you look at his name on his comment it’s a link which I’ve modified so it won’t go directly to his weblog. There’s a rather obvious part of the URL to dike out so it will point there, if you really want to see.

having such an experience on your blog, John, is a sign of prominence!

That may be. My point is not so much that I wish it wouldn’t happen as that it will happen sooner or later, so new bloggers should be prepared to roll their eyes and move on when it does.

Posted by: John Armstrong on August 21, 2009 5:29 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Dear John and Daniel, I tend to agree with Daniel on this matter (and thanks, Daniel, for mentioning Gina). By a similar token people oftem complain about bad papers where the real problem is the vast number of good papers. In addition, as I learned from Danny Kleitman, there is a lot to be learned from bad papers.

Posted by: Gil Kalai on August 16, 2009 4:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

That wordpress.com allows LaTeX in the body text.

Posted by: Bill Watson on August 9, 2009 9:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Codecogs allows to create image URLs from latex code, and so include formulas in any content that allows including images.

For example:

Posted by: Vladimir Nesov on August 9, 2009 11:55 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Codecogs

Wow, that works well! Xy, preview, very fast. If only it produced SVG!

Posted by: Toby Bartels on August 10, 2009 12:18 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I haven’t worked on this for 7 or 8 years, so I don’t know about any technical improvements for converting svg that have happened since then (or new programs). You need a high quality svg converter. So from my last post on this topic,

OP said:
I’ve read that exporting directly from Inkscape as EPS doesn’t work so well (maybe not the most recent news) and I don’t know about the PStricks export.
————————
TeX replied:
My first attempt at this would be to export from inkscape svg as high resolution png. Then use gimp to export to eps. [iirc, this can be embedded in Tex4ht]
————————-

Back then, there wasn’t any other way to do it. Sometimes I had to experiment on how high to set the resolution. I noticed somebody else mention svg so I decided to include this. To get back on topic, the first two chapters (free) of (More) Math into Latex by George Gratzer are available from http://www.ctan.org/tex-archive/info/Math_into_LaTeX-4/
This is for others, not a slight to your math -> latex skills, Toby. I forgot to mention it before.

Posted by: Stephen Harris on August 10, 2009 11:33 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

This post and its predecessor are good reminders that if this is to be Blogging for Dummies (in the postive sense) you’ll need a glossarry to get into this level of bloggerism.

Posted by: jim stasheff on August 10, 2009 2:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Jim wrote:

This post and its predecessor are good reminders that if this is to be Blogging for Dummies (in the postive sense) you’ll need a glossary to get into this level of bloggerism.

I certainly won’t spend my 800 word opinion piece trying to explain how to set up a blog! That’s not enough room.

Nor will I utter acronyms such as ‘SVG’ or ‘CSS’, because I really want the uneducated masses of aging (>40\gt 40) mathematicians to understand what I’m saying. They may not have the technical savvy of a typical 15-year-old, and they may not want to set up their own blog, but they can still contribute to the conversations.

I will, however, allow myself to say ‘TeX’.

Posted by: John Baez on August 12, 2009 7:55 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

“uneducated masses of aging (>40 ) mathematicians”

AGING? I think you’ve just insulted and alienated many of the people you would like to reach.

Posted by: Richard on August 13, 2009 3:28 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

uneducated masses of aging (>40 ) mathematicians

AGING? I think you’ve just insulted and alienated many of the people you would like to reach.

Yeah, how dare you imply that I'm not increasing in wisdom and maturity just because I'm still eligible for a Fields Medal? Give me a chance!

Posted by: Toby Bartels on August 13, 2009 7:39 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

John wrote:

Nor will I utter acronyms such as ‘SVG’ or ‘CSS’, because I really want the uneducated masses of aging (>40) mathematicians to understand what I’m saying.

Richard wrote:

AGING? I think you’ve just insulted and alienated many of the people you would like to reach.

Who? The ones without a sense of humor? Screw ‘em!

I’m over 40 myself, and I include myself among the uneducated masses of aging mathematicians that I’m talking about. For example, I’ve never been able to figure out how an rss feed works. Someday I will get a grad student to explain it to me. And when that day comes, you’ll know rss feeds are obsolete.

Posted by: John Baez on August 14, 2009 12:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Oh ho, you’re in your forties?? That means you’ll soon be approaching 50. As one who has already crossed to the other side, I’ll let you in on a little secret: you don’t yet even know what you are missing! :-)

Posted by: Richard on August 14, 2009 3:31 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Henri Cartan; Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

As Henri Cartan might advise, the first century of a Mathematician’s life is the hardest. I was reminded of this by Tom Apostol, when I remembered being at his 81st birthday party, and how he was publishing (and winning awards) more than ever. He pointed out that this was years ago, and that my memory, typical of someone in his 50s, was erratic.

Henri Cartan, a mathematician known for meticulous proofs and for
inspiring a revival of mathematics in France after World War II, died
in Paris on 13 Aug 2008. He was 104.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on August 14, 2009 5:02 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Richard wrote:

Oh ho, you’re in your forties?? That means you’ll soon be approaching 50.

If all goes well, yes. In fact I’m 48.

As one who has already crossed to the other side, I’ll let you in on a little secret: you don’t yet even know what you are missing! :-)

Can you give me some clues? I’m already enjoying ever-worsening vision and declining mental acuity.

Posted by: John Baez on August 16, 2009 6:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

You can also get LaTeX on blogspot/blogger too, really easily. Just follow these simple instructions and you’re golden. Blogspot/blogger also allows a lot more freedom on modifying the CSS/html code directly, but wordpress allows you to upload pdfs (useful for LaTeX documents/rough drafts).

Just giving a balanced view to the pros/cons of blogger and wordpress…

Posted by: Anon on August 10, 2009 6:40 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I think it’s safe to assume that if we’re talking to the group that really doesn’t know anything about weblogs yet, they’re not the sort who are going to be tinkering with their own CSS.

Posted by: John Armstrong on August 10, 2009 7:23 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I agree. This is very important. So please mention it in your article.

Posted by: b on August 10, 2009 8:10 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Peter Smith maintains a website called “Latex for Logicians”. There is a section which pertains to category theory and it contains

—————————-

Diagrams for logic and category theory

* pgf and TikZ (Till Tantau, 2005: a general TeX macro package for generating graphics, with a user-friendly syntax layer called TikZ).
* Guide to commutative diagrams packages (J.S. Milne 2005)
* diagrams.tex (Paul Taylor 1986 –), classic macros: highly rated, “great for drawing simple or very complicated commutative diagrams” for category theory
* XY-pic (Kristoffer Rose and Ross Moore 1991 - 2002; extremely powerful and versatile: there’s a chapter on this in The LaTeX Graphics Companion)
* Tree drawing in LaTeX (from LaTeX for Linguists)
* Dednat (Eduardo Ochs, 2008) preprocesses proofs or diagrams written without markup.

—————————

I think the hardest thing for a mathematician wanting to express on a blog is the Latex interface. So I think that a Jacques Distler clone could create a LaTeX for Mathematicians website which would could be cited in the AMS article. The present information mostly points to beginning LaTeX books or tutorials without anything special for blogs. The AMS-LaTeX User’s Guide (amsldoc.pdf)is nearly 15 years old.
http://ems.calumet.purdue.edu/mcss/kevinlee/mathwriting/
The proposed Latex for Mathematicians website perhaps could be part of a sticky on this blog (like a FAQ) and include a link to Cogcode if that proves to work well.

Posted by: Stephen Harris on August 10, 2009 9:59 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I was also asked to contribute a piece, but I think it would be more in the spirit of the maths blogging enterprise if I comment here instead.

I’m of course very enthusiastic about blogs as a medium for mathematical communication; it seems to fill in a niche between formal mathematical publications and informal seminars and conversations, as it combines the durable availability of the former with the interactivity of the latter. In particular, it seems to be the best place so far to put “folklore” and other iotas of mathematics that are individually too trifling to publish (at least, until the maths wikis build up more momentum).

Blogging is quite labor-intensive in the short term, but I find it has some time-saving effects in the long-term. For instance, I have found myself having to give the same speech about some mathematical topic to multiple graduate students over the years; it’s more efficient to put up a blog post on it and then to point all the students at that (and come back if they have more questions). Plus, the post gets enriched by further comments from other readers. In a similar spirit, I have found that one of the most efficient (and enjoyable) ways to learn a subject properly is to blog about it thoroughly.

There are other unexpected side benefits too - my papers get proofread a bit more, the references become more complete, and I learn all sorts of random bits of mathematical culture and knowledge that I wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.

There are some non-trivial issues though. For instance, it is very possible to say something stupid (mathematically or otherwise) on a blog, which could then exist permanently on the internet for, say, a future employer to read about. I think this deters many mathematicians from participating, but it really shouldn’t; these free-form discussions shouldn’t be held to the same level of accuracy as formal publications. This may be a poor analogy, but it’s sort of like the difference between scripted comedy and improvisational comedy; one can slip up in the latter and not affect one’s reputation for the former (in some ways, it can even enhance it, if one recovers well.) Certainly I have great respect for many of the commenters on my own blog just for contributing their own thoughts, even if (or especially if) they are not in polished form.

I’ve had occasional issues with cranks, but one can simply delete any worthless posts, or in extreme cases, ban IP addresses and the like; this is the blog owner’s prerogative, and those posters are free to start their own blog if they want a forum.

LaTeX support is of course essential. Luca Trevisan’s LaTeX to Wordpress converter (with its automatic equation numbering, etc.) is particularly good for extended blog posts, though of course not applicable in this particular blog.

Posted by: Terence Tao on August 9, 2009 10:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

As an undergraduate, one of the biggest benefits I get out of reading math blogs, especially Terence Tao’s and Tim Gowers’, is insight into how real mathematicians discuss, think about, and work on real problems. (I single out the Fields medalists because they seem to have the highest percentage of informal posts among the blogs I read.) For example, I really enjoyed Gowers’ posts about demystifying proofs and they’ve affected my own approach to difficult proofs.

I may not have gotten such insight for years otherwise, and it has really helped me get some perspective on the rest of my undergraduate education. There are plenty of textbooks available on the content of mathematics but very little to read regarding the process of mathematics, and that’s a niche math blogging fills very well.

As for my own blogging experiences, I can attest that learning a subject by blogging about it is quite productive. Putting what you know down in writing forces you to clarify your ideas, and then commenters can clarify them even further as well as provide interesting tangents. If you asked a stupid question in your post and it was answered in a comment, anyone else Googling the same stupid question will get it answered as well. The whole process is very efficient.

Posted by: Qiaochu Yuan on August 9, 2009 11:34 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Hi John,

I think Qiaochu Yuan’s comment on how blogs help teach the ‘process’ of research in mathematics is an important point.

People have worked hard to make the nLab a place which does exactly this. Part of the development of the nLab has been a commitment to encouraging people to contribute without fear.

I think it would be nice to emphasize this.

On another point, I think one cause of intimidation is just that at a high level blog it can be difficult to spot other people’s mistakes (especially if it is not in your field). This can lead people (especially younger mathematcians) to feel that they are in the company of math blogging gods. It can take some time and encouragement for people to realize that everyone makes mistakes and that blogging is more about sharing interesting ideas than getting everything right the first time.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on August 10, 2009 4:38 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I think I’d sum things up by saying that mathematicians need to know that blogging is now a serious part of mathematical culture, so if they are not having at least an occasional look at what people are saying on their blogs, then they are missing out. And many other mathematicians are missing out on the interesting comments that they could (with very little effort) be making.

A more specific comment I might make is that there is a gap in the blog market that’s waiting to be filled. A blog is a great place to put ideas that are interesting and informative to many people but not suitable for a research paper. But the people who are writing posts of this kind are not covering all areas of mathematics by any means. I don’t want to say which areas are not covered in case I forget about a blog that does in fact cover an area I mention, but I can pretty well guarantee that a blog that had posts that explained ideas from parts of maths that are far from analysis/combinatorics/computer science in an accessible way would attract a huge number of hits.

Having said that, a mathematician who wants to set up a blog like that has to know how to write in a certain style: informal, but also precise enough that non-experts can follow what is being said. But such people exist, and they should consider blogging, because the market has not reached anything like saturation point.

Posted by: Timothy Gowers on August 9, 2009 11:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I’m posting anonymously for various reasons that’ll probably become clear later on, although I suspect a select few people will still be able to guess who I am.

I have a mathematical blog, not as widely read as this or Terry’s, but with its share of followers; I also read and participate in a fairly wide selection of other math blogs.

First, the good things about mathematical blogging: like Terry said, blogs are currently the best place to write things that aren’t suitable for mainstream publication and are too trivial or nebulous to go on the arXiv or on a personal homepage. It’s also nice that one can discuss topics not directly related to research online – things like history, pedagogy, or career advice.

Another advantage, particularly for those of us without the stature of a Terry Tao or a Tim Gowers, is the meritocratic nature of blogs and the Internet in general; a bright high-schooler or undergrad has the opportunity to contribute as much to a discussion as a tenured Harvard professor.

There are some disadvantages, though. The anonymity of the internet (and the ability for anyone to comment) can lead to cranks, but it also can lead to flame wars. (Read the anonymous comments on some of Lance Fortnow’s more contentious entries some time.) Blogging and contributing to blogs isn’t for the faint of heart or ego; particularly if you wade into discussions of non-mathematical topics, you and your strongly-held beliefs are liable to be attacked, and not necessarily civilly.

Keeping with the ego theme, I have to admit: it can be hard not to view blogging as a popularity contest. When Blog X links to Blog Y but not your blog, or when Dr. W leaves a terse note in reply to one comment of yours while effusively praising every word Professor Z writes, the natural human response is envy. Of course, this is by no means confined to the blogosphere, but it would be unfair and untrue to suggest that the math blog world is some sort of harmonious Platonic meritocracy.

In conclusion, maybe the best analogy for the blogging world is the conference hallway; informal, surprisingly fertile, and often more enjoyable than the stuffy talk given in the lecture room, but at the same time inhospitable and occasionally petty.

Posted by: Anonymoose on August 9, 2009 11:42 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

In arguing the case for blogs to newcomers it may be useful to give an idea of the time it requires on a daily or weekly basis, and also to provide figures about the average number of readers, and of commentators, of a typical blog post. The pros and cons of both single-author and multiple-authors blogs might also require some explanations.

A side remark I’d like to make is that even though most mathematicians understand english well-enough to read a paper and talk to colleagues, maybe some of the non-native english speakers who live say in Europe or Asia perhaps find it a bit difficult to follow quick replies and slang words, and prefer moreover not to write in their not always perfect english (while on the other hand blogging itself in their native language would be no problem to them). This might explain that some subjects are not well represented as yet.

Posted by: anotherAnonymous on August 10, 2009 1:11 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

One thing I found with my blog is that readership and commenting drops off exponentially with the level of material. My most popular post by far on my own blog was a certain puzzle about blue-eyed islanders that was created almost by accident (some commenter asked me about the puzzle on another blog post, and the thread started itself). In contrast, a post about one of my own research paper garners about a twentieth of the attention, on the average. But as long as one realises that mathematical research is a very, very, niche subject, and that blogs (particularly maths blogs) are not any sort of vehicle for fame or fortune, I think one can cope with this disparity (and the comments that I _do_ get on my research posts tend to be of very high quality.)

A typical blog post for me takes anything from a few minutes to several hours, depending on the length and depth of the post. But one good thing about blogging software is that one can have any number of half-finished drafts hidden “behind the curtain”; so one can have a bright idea for a post, write down a short sketch, and then leave it until much later, when one again has an idle moment (or one needs a break from more “important” work), to add a bit more. So a blog can also be a storehouse for one’s half-completed mathematical thoughts.

Posted by: Terence Tao on August 10, 2009 1:59 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Here’s a few quick thoughts. I’ve repeated a few comments made earlier, where it seems like there may be value in hearing the same comment from more than one person.

* There are many free blogging platforms. A good one is wordpress.com, and it has the benefit of allowing LaTeX.

* It’s not clear how long any of this will be preserved. Will the material in our blogs still be around in 20 years time? What happens if wordpress.com or other services go bankrupt? The Wordpress software itself is open source, so it’d probably be possible to move to another host, but this is potentially a worry.

* Regularly allowing anonymous comments sometimes really brings out strange behaviour, behaviour I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen. I don’t like pointing out examples — it feels like I’m criticising the blogs involved, which is not true (there are some wonderful blogs with awful comments) — but you can probably easily supply your own examples.

* To address the previous problem, when people submit comments I require people to enter an email address, and I hand-moderate the first comment from that address. If I allow it through, subsequent comments are passed through moderation automatically. This is, I believe, the wordpress default, and seems to strike a happy balance between allowing comments through, and suppressing rude or unproductive comments.

* With that said, the comments on many blogs are simply astonishingly good, adding all sorts of extra insights and perspective to the original post. Polymath1 is an extreme example, but it’s at the end of a continuum: I’ve seen many wonderful comment threads here, and on many other blogs.

* Handling comments is, in general, a skill that has to be learnt. I don’t know if anyone’s ever explained the elements of that skill, but a start is here: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/006036.html.

* The range of the blogging medium is still being defined. That’s exciting: blogs like the n-category cafe, the Polymath Project, and Terry’s blog are all helping expand the range of the blogging medium. There’s almost certainly a lot of potential in the existing tools that is not being realized. And, of course, many of the tools will certainly be enhanced a lot in the years to come.

* Some people will no doubt see it as crass, but I think there’s value in mentioning the audience sizes for some of the blogs. This is important for many reasons, but one is simply the fact of exposing mathematics to a wider audience. A lot of undergraduates and high school students are reading these blogs. So are many people in other professions - I see math blogs surprisingly often on the front page of sites like Hacker News (a site mainly for startup entrepreneur). The best mathematical blogs make mathematics seem astonishingly alive and important to people outside the profession, and that’s a very good thing. (When I was catching up on the Polymath1 comment threads I continually found myself getting tense, rather like I was watching a suspense movie. Perhaps my reaction was idiosyncratic, but I like to think it’s a response others might have, too.)

You might find some interest a short essay I wrote earlier this year on the value of mathematical blogs — it’s at http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/doing-science-online/. The editors at Nature Physics liked the essay, and published a revised version earlier this year.

Posted by: Michael Nielsen on August 10, 2009 1:14 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Michael, don’t worry about blogs being unavailable in the future. You can export your pages from any decent blog service, and failing that you can always save the HTML pages to your own system.

Posted by: Tom on August 10, 2009 9:03 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I’d agree with Terence Tao and Qiaochu Yuan that blogging is a productive way to learn a topic; I have posted multiple times on material that I vaguely understood but wanted to learn better, and now not only will retain it better, but will have a source to refer back to in the future. Since I know that other people will read the post, I have additional motivation to do a better job. I’ve also learned quite a bit from the comments.

I also think there is also plenty of room in the mathematical blogosphere for many new websites, since there are large areas of mathematics still not covered. It should not be hard to find a niche.

Group blogging offers the benefit of interactions between the individual bloggers and boosted activity. When the different bloggers have different mathematical interests, the blog can become more lively as a result.

Despite the title of the thread, I also think one more important point is the following: Mathematical blogs are not just for professional mathematicians. Students, too, can benefit from blogs; for instance, the opportunities to discuss mathematics in a high school setting are somewhat limited, but can be expanded significantly through both one’s own blog and comments elsewhere.

Posted by: Akhil Mathew on August 10, 2009 1:19 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Akhil wrote:

Despite the title of the thread, I also think one more important point is the following: Mathematical blogs are not just for professional mathematicians.

That’s true! I get a lot of emails from young would-be mathematicians asking for advice, as well as from people who used to be in math, who like to keep their toe in the water by reading This Week’s Finds.

I often wonder how my life would be different if the internet had been around when I was a kid, letting me slake my curiosity in ways far beyond reading my dad’s CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics and my uncle’s college physics text. Having blogs around would have been wonderful.

And this sort of thing should be of interest to American Mathematical Society members, too, since like every professional society, the AMS is devoted to promoting interest in its subject area.

Posted by: John Baez on August 10, 2009 7:55 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I like to think of math blogging as a notebook for thoughts. Except there are many many benefits you don’t get from an ordinary notebook.

1) You get other people’s comments (which often give insight into something you hadn’t thought of before).

2) The notes are typed.

3) The notes are incredibly easy to search.

4) Other people are reading your notes, which helps you find typos and keeps your writeup honest.

5) You never run out of pages or lose the notebook (there is the slight concern brought up by an earlier comment about a website going under).

There are probably lots more that I’m just not thinking of right now.

Posted by: HilbertThm90 on August 10, 2009 4:45 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Competition Analysis; Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I believe that every serious (and/or fun) Math Blogger should:

(1) Make (if only for personal and students’ use) a list of their 10 favorite Math Blogs and 10 favorite Math web sites (these may intersect).

(2) Think through your constructive yet real competition with these. What is your objective regarding a sustained competitive advantage?

(3) Think through your real competition with your suppliers (guest-bloggers, ISP, blog host, software infrastructure, university or corporation or agency, paper and online journals, book publishers).

(4) Think through your real competition with your customers (i.e. readers, editors and readers of spinoff papers, books, TV appearances, etc.). If you are mostly free but also sell something (T-shirts, mugs, your books) then pricing theory is the way to optimize that component.

(5) Think through your real competition with government (taxation, regulation, copyright, trademark, patent, freedom of speech).

(6) Think through your real competition with changes in technology that alter any of the other items in the list.

I believe that if you fail to do any one of these, you will asymptotically lose market share (attention, eyeballs). If you do them all, you are not guaranteed to attain your objectives, but your probability will be larger.

I credit John Porter, Harvard Business School, for his classification of Competition, and I take blame for any misunderstanding thereof.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on August 10, 2009 5:04 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Two more points which I didn’t see on previous comments:

(1) Community: even mathematicians are people and have a need for bonding into communities. Blogs play a part in serving this need for community-wide interaction, especially when there are a several interacting blogs in the same field (like the case in TCS). This is particularly important for graduate students and for those in remote locations. (Remote from what? Usually remote from the US.)

(2) Really fast really wide dissimination of important or interesting new results. For example this year, in the TCS blogosphere, we saw much discussion of three neat results: Braverman’s, Moser’s, and QIP=PSPACE. Of these three, two became widely known before they appeared in a conference or journal. While I am sure that these are not THE best three TCS papers this year (whatever that means), these are great results that I got to know about even though they are outside of my own research field.

Posted by: Noam Nisan on August 10, 2009 5:40 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Well, also, you get the added bonus of writing a sort of “self contained blog-notebook”. For example, my notes on category theory has all the category names be links to where they are defined, because - knowing myself - I’d forget what nCobHomDom refers to…or why it’s called that.

With a notebook, I have to resort to color coordination and even then it becomes a rainbow as opposed to a useful reference.

Better, if someone else blogs something useful, or some article on arXiv is relevant, I can directly link to it rather than having an ad hoc in-notebook bibliography system.

Just my two cents on something blogs add that notebooks don’t really have…

Posted by: pqnelson on August 10, 2009 6:59 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Nice notebook! I have tons of old notebooks — but while filling them up with notes was very important to me at the time, I hardly ever refer to them. If I’d done them on a blog, or wiki, at least other people could look at them. The problem is that hand writing is so much quicker… and I don’t always want to put in the time required to make notes that are comprehensible to the rest of the world.

It’s great that you’ve fallen in love with category theory just before taking abstract algebra. I think it can help a lot. You’ll see they’re doing a lot of the same constructions in different categories of algebraic gadgets… and after you subtract this, you’re left seeing what’s really different about these different gadgets.

Posted by: John Baez on August 10, 2009 8:45 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

The problem is that hand writing is so much quicker… and I don’t always want to put in the time required to make notes that are comprehensible to the rest of the world.

This is true, at first. If one writes a “rough draft” on paper, then types it up, it takes about twice as long.

However, if one just skips the rough draft, and types it up – a sort of “stream of consciousness” way of doing math – it’s just as fast.

The only problem child is diagrams, that’s the fly in the ointment that consumes a lot of time!

But, with regards e.g. to my notes, I have no intention of making them comprehensible to everyone else (no offense everyone else). They’re really there so when I forget about something, I can look it up in my notes and be able to explain it to someone after reading it for a few minutes.

The hyperlinks let me do this far more efficiently too!

It’s great that you’ve fallen in love with category theory just before taking abstract algebra. I think it can help a lot.

Haha, well I completely agree, but I slightly mis-wrote the facts there. I have sat in on the graduate abstract algebra series, but I have not taken the required upper division algebra courses yet.

When I first took the graduate courses, they were a bit…abstract! But I reasoned that reflected the atmosphere of the 19th century: people didn’t name things in a logical way then, they named things because “it sounded neat”. (That’s why organic chemistry is so hard!)

Category theory kind of reveals a logical beauty of the situation, which is great for a would-be “hopeless algebraist” like myself ;)

Posted by: pqnelson on August 11, 2009 8:42 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I’ve just been at a conference where I experimented with using a graphics tablet together with the program xournal to take notes. I found it worked fine (except for when my laptop batteries ran out!) and was very easy to use.

For one talk I experimented with having a slightly more complicated set-up wherein I typed the notes as a LaTeX document and had the PDF of that document as the background to the xournal program. The point was that for most of the talk, I could simply type what was being written and get it almost right. However, as was pointed out, doing diagrams like that is next to impossible so that’s where the xournal program comes in - I draw the diagrams on top. It didn’t quite work, mainly due to me not having thought out how all the steps would fit together before trying it out “for real” as it were. But I think I know how to make it work next time …

So anyway, I now have the notes filed away in a searchable database instead of bits of paper that get lost in my office. Plus I save a tree or two.

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on August 11, 2009 9:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Perhaps the most common question I get asked is “how do you get time to blog” (and the second one is “where do you get your ideas from”.

Blogging does take time, no doubt, but it takes far less time than most people think. Terry’s blog is of course the perfect counter-example, with the density of material in each post, but it’s also the perfect exception. Most blogs aren’t like that, and yet are stlll quite useful.

When people ask about blogging, they always say, “but I don’t want to write about my cat”, or “I can’t write like Terry Tao” :). I think it’s important to emphasize (as other commenters have said) that the blogging medium is flexible enough to have many different successful models, and that the best way to find a model is to start a blog and experiment: soon enough you’ll find something that works for you.

Posted by: Suresh Venkat on August 10, 2009 8:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Thanks for all the great replies! I’m happy that this subject has gotten comments from many people who don’t usually post here. I’ll try to put a link to this blog entry in my opinion piece on the Notices — there’s too much good stuff to summarize in 800 words. Plus, it’s a little example of the power of blogging.

Posted by: John Baez on August 10, 2009 9:01 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

My guess is that the 800 word limit is negotiable if the material is sufficiently interesting. I gave up my own 800 word slot, so perhaps some of that could go to you :-)

Posted by: Terence Tao on August 10, 2009 7:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Steven Krantz made it sound like the 800-word limit was set in stone: “The word limit for an ‘In My Opinion’ is 800 words, strictly enforced (since the piece has to fit on the page)”.

Of course I could try to write two opinion pieces, one under your name.

But actually, having just finished a few long papers, there’s something mighty attractive about seeing what can be done in just 800 words.

From Coltrane: the Story of a Sound:

This was the period when Coltrane occaisioned two of jazz’s most famous punch lines. They both amount to the same thing. One came from Cannonball Adderly: “Once in a while, Miles might say, ‘Why did you play so long, man?’ and John would say ‘I took that long to get it all in.’” The other seems to have no definite source. Coltrane says to Davis that he can’t figure out a way to stop his solos. Davis retorts: “Why don’t you try taking the horn out of your mouth?”

Posted by: John Baez on August 12, 2009 3:33 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Musician Brian Eno has an interesting story in a related vein. Eno was apparently going through a difficult patch, finding it hard to compose, when he was asked by Microsoft to do the startup sound for Windows 95. He was given just a few seconds to work with, and experimented with dozens or hundreds of different ideas before settling on the sound Microsoft actually used. He said that doing this broke his musical block - when he went back to composing 3 minute pieces, he found that it was “oceans of time”, when before it seemed very constraining.

Posted by: Michael Nielsen on August 28, 2009 1:07 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I like Eno’s description of how he was invited to create this sound:

The thing from the agency said, ‘We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,’ this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said ‘and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long.’ I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.

Posted by: John Baez on August 28, 2009 5:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Brian Eno’s Windows startup sound; Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

“Ten years ago, Microsoft spent $300m launching Windows 95 (just under $3 per copy sold). A tiny slice of that money went to Brian Eno, who recorded the startup sound on a handful of ageing synths in his studio.”

“Brian told XFM that he was paid $35,000 for the sound. In 2001, MS-hater post-rock band Trans Am released Let’s Take The Fresh Step Together [iTunes Link], which is the Microsoft Sound timestretched to 51 seconds.”

http://musicthing.blogspot.com/2005/05/tiny-music-makers-pt-2-microsoft-sound.html

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on August 29, 2009 8:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?


Another thought is about visibility: most blogs have a “blogroll” of a select few other blogs, but it would be very nice to have a comprehensive directory of math blogs. A simple webpage on a moderated wiki somewhere would do, detailing for each blog: link; author(s); average level of exposition (e.g. high school to research; research-only,…); and of course math areas (rouhly, perhaps with MSC or arXiv-like tags).

For example I only learnt about Danny Calegari’s nice blog recently through Terry’s blogroll, and I’m sure I’ve been missing other great blogs for some time. It must be more than slightly non-rewarding for them to do high quality blogging yet receive very few comments and page hits: a semi-official directory may well improve that situation.

Posted by: anotherAnonymous on August 10, 2009 10:40 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

There is a page for maths blogs at the science blogs wiki,

http://wiki.henryfarrell.net/wiki/index.php/Mathematics/Statistics

but it is woefully incomplete. This wiki seems to be only mildly active these days, but I don’t know of any better directory - but in the meantime, I suppose one could add more links to this list.

Posted by: Terence Tao on August 10, 2009 4:01 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I think Terry’s own blogroll is one of the most complete i know of, at least i discovered quite a few new blogs this way…

Posted by: lievenlb on August 10, 2009 5:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I was going to suggest that instead of adding content to a fairly inactive wiki, why not add to our very own active wiki?

I was even going to copy over the links to the nLab.

But alas, the nLab is inaccessible at the moment. Frustrating…

Posted by: Eric Forgy on August 10, 2009 5:18 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I realised that it’s almost as easy to edit the wiki as it is to complain about it, so I decided to copy over my own blogroll onto the above wiki page. (It’s true that one could use one of the existing maths wikis for this purpose also, but perhaps there is some value in placing them in a location where non-mathematicians also might visit. And, if the wiki ends up dying anyway, it’s a trivial matter to move or mirror the list somewhere else…)

Posted by: Terence Tao on August 10, 2009 5:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

That page along with your additions (including your blogroll) now also appear on our wiki:

Online Resources

I may have missed some in the event I copied things over while you were editing the page. That is easy to correct if it is the case.

Posted by: Eric Forgy on August 10, 2009 6:09 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Will you talk about the capacity of a maths blog to open up lines of communication to other disciplines? It has been my hope from the start of this blog that the Café will facilitate a deeper engagement of philosophy with mathematics. Still a long way to go!

Posted by: David Corfield on August 10, 2009 10:49 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Dear David, I think that this is actually a place where blogs can be most useful. (Indeed the connection with philosophy is most welcome.)

One difficulty is that even on blogs (as in lectures, books etc) people take too much for granted regarding the readers background.

Posted by: Gil Kalai on August 11, 2009 10:30 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I think a nice thing to aim for is to have a range of different levels of difficulty and necessary amounts of background, so that there are both carefully explained posts that are inviting to people with less background, and more advanced posts to avoid boring the experts. It’s important to keep experts interested and contributing as well as to bring in new people (including future experts) and keep the fans happy.

Posted by: Tim Silverman on August 11, 2009 1:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Hello DC, This is a category theory software theory package which has a philosophically tinged creator. The url I provide bypasses email registration. One small polymath step for Aristotelian Renaissance :-) There are several screenshots with short explanations.

http://www.mathframe.com/articles/usef/categorytheory/index.html
“Category Theory” by Dr. Petr Ivankov

…”However, very interesting physical theories are being developed now.
Modern Superstring theory and M-theory are very exciting and complicated.
Even scientists have no hope of practical applications for them now.
Rather, they would like to understand the sense of these theories. This
article is devoted to software that would be of help to advanced scientists.

Posted by: Stephen Harris on August 11, 2009 2:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Gil wrote:

One difficulty is that even on blogs (as in lectures, books etc) people take too much for granted regarding the readers background.

When I decided to join Urs and David in the nn-Category Café, I was still feeling burnt from my experience as a moderator of the newsgroup sci.physics.research.

On that newsgroup, a bunch of good physicists spent a lot of time explaining things to nonexperts. It was great! Unfortunately this helped make the newsgroup attractive to crackpots and flamers. The moderators wound up spending a lot of time serving as policemen. Eventually I became exhausted.

When I joined the nn-Category Café I was very scared about a repeat of that scenario. So, I decided to avoid writing blog entries that would be understood by a large audience. My hope was that by making the nn-Café a little intimidating, it wouldn’t need so much policing, and we could have serious conversations without too much noise.

It seems to have succeeded at that goal.

I would enjoy a broader conversation that involved more nonexperts, because I love explaining things and showing off — and for some reason, my day job as a math teacher doesn’t satisfy that urge. But I have a feeling that that nn-Café is not the place for that broader conversation.

Posted by: John Baez on August 12, 2009 3:20 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Well I wasn’t expecting you to do the job of talking to the philosophers who wandered by here. Anyway it may take a while before many do. One good piece of news is that Hans Halvorson, the Princeton philosopher for whom you’ve written your history of n-categories in physics, is taking time out to learn category theoretic logic with Ieke Moerdijk.

I’ve often wondered how Russell got away with it. “So Mr. Russell, you’ve gone off to Jena to learn this new logic from an obscure German mathematician, and you say that this will transform philosophy.” Being an Earl must have helped.

Posted by: David Corfield on August 13, 2009 2:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

David wrote:

Will you talk about the capacity of a maths blog to open up lines of communication to other disciplines?

I can try to spend 3 words on that as part of talking about the general issue of giving mathematics more of a ‘public face’.

Are there any explicitly interdisciplinary math blogs other than the nn-Category Café? I.e., blogs that explicitly extend beyond math and physics to other areas, like philosophy or biology or…?

Posted by: John Baez on August 16, 2009 7:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

…computer science?

The Comonad Reader and A Neighborhood of Infinity.

No biology admittedly, but then, as Alexandre Borovik told me, Gelfand was keen to observe that what is more unreasonable than the effectiveness of mathematics in physics is its ineffectiveness in biology.

Posted by: David Corfield on August 16, 2009 7:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

It’s probably also worth mentioning ways to make it easier to *read* blogs, considering your target audience: aggregating everything to Google reader, etc.

Posted by: Daniel Carney on August 10, 2009 11:09 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I could only talk about this if I knew something about it. Anyone want to explain it?

I have some blogs listed on my iGoogle, but that still makes me look over all the ‘headlines’ to see if new articles have shown up, so I only follow about 6 blogs, instead of dozens.

(I’m not sure I’d want to follow dozens of blogs, but that’s another question.)

Posted by: John Baez on August 16, 2009 7:08 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

How to use RSS:

(1) Go to http://reader.google.com and either sign in with your Google account, or create a Google account. Congratulations, you now have an RSS reader! (There are others, but Google Reader is the most widely used.)

(2) You now need to add feeds to your feedreader. You do this by “subscribing” to different blogs. There are several ways to do this. One way is to go to the blog in question, and look for a link or button that says something like “Subscribe here”, or “RSS” or “Atom”, or something similar. E.g., go to http://terrytao.wordpress.com, and you’ll see in the top left a link that says “Subscribe to feed”. Click the link and follow the instructions (a couple more clicks). You’ve now added that feed to your RSS reader. You no longer need to remember to check Terry Tao’s blog occasionally - everything will be brought to you, in your feedreader. Of course, you do need to remember to check your feedreader. But that’s just a single site, not multiple blogs.

There’s a lot more that can be said, of course, but that’s hopefully a useful start. I find using an RSS reader makes it far easier to follow blogs.

Posted by: Michael Nielsen on August 28, 2009 1:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Incidentally, the RSS feed for the n-Category Cafe is slightly unusual. There is a link to the feed - marked “Atom”, some ways down the right-hand column - but when you click through it doesn’t give you any immediate way of subscribing, which is what most blogs do. If you’re new to RSS I’d start by subscribing to some other blogs, most of which use standard software, like Wordpress or Typepad. Then come back and figure out n-Cat.

Posted by: Michael Nielsen on August 28, 2009 1:31 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

For mathematicians who know nothing about blogs:
Mention a couple to look at: Tao’s at http://terrytao.wordpress.com/, maybe AMS Grad Student Blog at http://mathgradblog.williams.edu/

Mention RSS feeds.

For mathematicians interested in starting a blog, tell them in detail how easy it is to get started using WordPress e.g.

Frank Morgan http://blogs.williams.edu/Morgan

http://math.williams.edu

Posted by: Frank Morgan on August 10, 2009 12:06 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Maybe the most important thing I get personally from mathematical blogs is some access to current mathematical research and progress in a (much) wider range of fields than my own. Of course there are some other sources for this type of information, for instance the Notices and Bulletin of the AMS, and the book reviews of various mathematical societies, but these respond usually slower to current events.

This applies already when one is simply reading blogs; but writing one also gives at least a chance of presenting some of my own interests, remarks and results, and getting people well outside of analytic number theory to have a look at them.

So in the long run, it seems that blogs are one of the best ways to compensate for the specialization of research.

Posted by: Emmanuel Kowalski on August 10, 2009 4:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I’d like to point out that a math blog also serves as a medium for interactive teaching. For instance, Terry Tao has been exceedingly patient and gracious in responding to questions from the public at large(quicker and more detailed responses if your screen name contains string like “student” or “beginner”, of which some professional mathematicians might have taken advantage). Where else can you have this level of accessibility to a world renowned academic?
Elite institutions such as MIT have been providing free access to many of their lectures online, but it’s esentially a one way thoroughfare. Academic blogs are the alleyways to get back to campus.

Posted by: student t on August 10, 2009 5:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

In the same vein (blogging as a teaching tool), Terence Tao, Luca Trevisan, and Scott Aaronson have in the past posted lecture notes from their courses on their blogs. You reach two audiences this way that are hard to reach otherwise: students who aren’t taking your course and can ask you questions, and mathematicians who can give you feedback. Professors should do this more.

I can’t find the example I had in mind, but there’s at least one example of a course where the students were required to post on a course blog on a regular basis. I think this is a great idea for reasons I’ve already mentioned: it forces students to clarify their ideas, it invites feedback, students can learn from each other… depending on the requirements for a post, I think this is probably a better way to gauge a student’s understanding of a subject than homework and tests combined.

It’s also worth repeating Michael Nielsen’s comment about math blogs as a vehicle for popularization and outreach. Math blogs are probably the only place a non-mathematician can easily find out what it is, exactly, that mathematicians do all day.

Posted by: Qiaochu Yuan on August 11, 2009 12:38 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Qiaochu, this probably isn’t what you were thinking of (in particular it isn’t mathematics, which I assumed your example was), but there was a Pomona course on David Foster Wallace where the students were required to regularly contribute to both a course blog and a wiki.

Tangentially, it’d be interesting to have a course where the aim was to build a specialized wiki for some mathematical subject, which was a major goal of the DFW course. I suspect that part of the reason that the Tricki hasn’t had quite the success of polymath is the broad scope; smaller projects (e.g. the Complexity Zoo) tend to be robust. But this isn’t the place to discuss that.

Posted by: Harrison on August 11, 2009 4:06 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I think that this spirit could be applied to peer reviewing: one could conceive a process of reviewing as a blog “battle” between the submitter and a bunch of anonymous referees. The submitter would submit his article and should defend it from attacks: referees could ask during the battle to give definitions, statements and proofs used but not explicitly given in the article. These responses, once certified by the referees could be stored in a wiki, and be pointed to by subsequent submitters during their own battles as answers to attacks.
This kind of n-lab would grow much faster than the existing lab due to the publish or perish pressure.
Once the battle is over, ie the article certified to be correct, it could be sent to “real” journals were mature mathematicians would not have to care about checking validity, but would only have to concentrate on the novelty and value of the ideas. Moreover this would save a lot of energy with respect to resubmission of refused papers.
But who would be these anonymous referees? Simply submitters: in order to be able to be able to submit, one should have “credits”. One would get “credits” by actively taking part in battles as referee (the modality of evaluating the value of referees has to be settled, but why not giving the power to a “master of the game” to disseminate mistakes in the text and evaluate the referees on their ability to detect them ;-)?). Experts would gain more credits for taking part as a referee in a battle than newcomers, and could also play the role of “master of the game”, i.e. moderate a reviewing process, or administrate games (by assigning referees to submitters).
Graduate students could give key words of their field of study, and would be oriented by administrators to battles were they would learn the field and gain credits for their future first submissions…
I think that the ideal place to store the certified articles would be the Arxiv, in a special section. It would be a plus to have access to worth of trusty papers, and anyone could be free to judge if these results are important for him or not. Of course this would not replace real journals which are important for giving a scale for job hirings. The history of the battle could be stored but not available to the public, but the wiki itself created through the battles could be edited and incorporated in Wikipedia or the n-lab for example.

Posted by: yael fregier on August 11, 2009 11:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Now for a comment from the (semi) lay audience. Without blogs, I would have lost contact and inspiration with math. I live outside town, and the local Barvarian uni math library is closed almost surely when I manage to get around to get there. So I haven’t seen the library for almost a decade. One reason I left the PhD behind was my dreams of collaborative internets math paradise (meanwhile much come true) and the fact that they didn’t allow me a decent computer in my office while happily paying me a full Studienrat salary. It felt like being forced to scribe on clay tablets, while everyone else had ink and paper.

Posted by: Florifulgurator, PhD dropout on August 10, 2009 6:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Certainly blog and blogging is an interesting phenomenon that I am quite curious about. It can be very interesting to look, also from a skeptical point of view, at mathematical blogging.

This reminds me of email, an earlier revolution in human communication with profound implication on our life, in general, and on mathematical communication especially. (Also in this case it had mixed effects.)

Many things that were very difficult some decades ago regarding writing papers, communicating, and having quick access to information became too easy. It is not clear if this had much effect on where the real deadlocks for progress in mathematics are.

Posted by: Gil Kalai on August 11, 2009 8:27 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I am a maths graduate but not a mathematician. I read this blog to help motivate me to learn category theory and I read ‘good math, bad math’ for entertainment. These seem to represent two extremes of the Math Blog spectrum; the only things they have in common are exploring maths and being consistently interesting. Something like Todd & Vishal’s blog falls in the middle. I think the fact that you can potentially communicate with a wide range of inerested folks is the advantage, and the need to couch any exposition so that the discussion brings them with you rather than starting 5 miles above their head is the challenge. The payoff isn’t just that you get responses; if you increase outside general interest in your specialist area, that is also significant.

Posted by: Roger Witte on August 11, 2009 12:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

for those who read French, I would advise to take a look at the “Annales de Gergone” http://www.numdam.org/numdam-bin/feuilleter?id=AMPA_1810-1811__1_
It was the first journal of mathematics to exist, and was run by a single man Gergonne himself. He used to post his own mathematical discoveries or questions, and often non professional mathematicians (high school teachers, students…) either answered these questions or commented on previous contributions. Doesn’t it remind you of something?

Posted by: yael fregier on August 11, 2009 2:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

One small point, which has already sort of been made. I used to put expository material on my web page, which has a webcounter. When I put similar, or in some cases identical, material on my blog, the audience was larger by one or two orders of magnitude. And the average quality of the comments is very high – many times I have thought that I had completely understood a topic, and then someone has contributed an insight that I had not had. I think some people think that all blog comments are like the strange ones one might read on a political journalist’s blog.

Posted by: gowers on August 11, 2009 2:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I think an important point is that mathblogging is only one of many aspects of online mathematics. Things such as the arXiv, the Tricki, the nLab, Wikipedia, various online databases, and new forms of publishing might possibly be the beginning of a major shift in how mathematics and science in general is done. Another aspect is new opportunities for collaboration, with for example the Polymath experiments and tools such as Google Wave. There are many interesting insights on all this in this other post of Michael Nielsen.

Posted by: Andreas Holmstrom on August 11, 2009 3:57 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

You might consider addressing head-on the sceptical things that some mathematicians say about blogs. Of course, you’re unlikely to hear those things from the people who comment here, but perhaps you know sceptics and could get them to articulate their views.

Some mathematicians think that blogs are a waste of time. Research articles are the serious stuff. Why don’t you stop pouring time into this ephemeral stuff and write papers instead? Some mathematicians say that what you read on blogs is unreliable. Some worry that if they post their ideas on blogs, other people will steal them.

I can’t remember what other criticisms people make. I’m such a convert that it’s an effort of memory. But I’m sure you can find plenty more negative opinions.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 11, 2009 10:28 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I think most of the objections raised here about blogging also apply to giving talks or seminars. At a talk, one can say unreliable or stupid things; and the ideas one mentions at a talk can be “stolen” by members of the audience. And there is the chance of getting into conflict with one or more audience members. Finally, why pour one’s time into preparing a good talk when one can spend time writing papers instead?

Of course, nobody is proposing to scale back on talks and seminars. If one views blogs as a durable version of a talk (sort of like a videotaped lecture, but with more interactivity), rather than as an informal version of a paper (though one could certainly do this also), then I think many of the objections disappear.

It’s also worth noting that while blog postings can contain initially more errors than a published article due to the lack of peer review (or lack of self-imposed standards comparable to peer review), they do at least have the advantage that an error, once found, can be corrected quite easily, without having to go through the clumsy mechanism of issuing an erratum. So in the long term, blog articles may well be comparable to published articles in reliability, especially if the readers provide good feedback.

Posted by: Terence Tao on August 12, 2009 12:51 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Dream/Feedback tradeoff; Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Kent Beck: “By far the dominant reason for not releasing sooner was a reluctance to trade the dream of success for the reality of feedback.”

Surely this should comfort Mathematicians afraid to blog, fearing they’ll look stupid, when they would be smart to be in the give-and-take with readers?

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on August 14, 2009 5:35 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

There are a few things which are initial deterrents to my wanting to start a blog.

First, and this has been mentioned a lot, the time that it would take to get up and running.

Second, mentioned a little, is that having a blog exposes you to seeming stupid. This especially applies to the sort of blog I’m contemplating, which would be a discussion of all the conjectures, half-finished projects and quarter-baked ideas I seem to have accumulated. My blog would contain a lot of dumb things, wrong ideas, and show off places where I’m stuck though lack of knowledge or skill.

Third, possibly not mentioned here so far, is the link - or lack of a link - between blogging and traditional academic publishing. As an early career researcher, I’m feeling a lot of pressure to get my publication count up, especially in “top” journals. OK, so what happens with citation and plagiarism? Say I put up some partial result on my blog, then I later go to publish and find that it’s already been published by someone else with no attribution to my blog? It could be a case of independent discovery, or it could be plagiarism. Do I publish, citing the dubious work? Do I try to investigate, or do I just let it go and work on other things?

Posted by: Paul Leopardi on August 11, 2009 11:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

The other side of the coin

There is another side to my scenario of the “dubious work” which pertains to peer reviewed academic journals.

The reviewers and the editors should now be aware of blogs and take them into account when reviewing manuscripts for publication. Authors should know how to properly cite blogs. Readers should know to complain if a paper fails to cite their favourite blog.

I wonder if any of this actually happens yet, and if so, in which journals.

Posted by: Paul Leopardi on August 11, 2009 11:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The other side of the coin: citing blogs

There is an example of how to cite blogs in medicine over at the NIH web site, perhaps that could be co-opted for use with mathematical journals?

Posted by: Paul Leopardi on August 11, 2009 11:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Citing blogs: maybe not that way

The example how to cite blogs, mentioned above, has attracted a number of complaints. Maybe it can be improved?

Posted by: Paul Leopardi on August 12, 2009 12:06 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The other side of the coin

I’ve already had some of my blog posts cited in actual papers; I don’t think it’s that much different from, say, citing “A. Mathematician, Personal communication” (and in fact is better, since the latter is not publicly accessible).

I don’t know of any example so far in which an idea in a maths blog has been plagiarised (not counting the spam blogs that copy posts wholesale). In fact, one could argue that having your idea on a blog protects against plagiarism, by providing an electronic “paper trail” to establish precedence. (Preprint servers with timestamps, such as the arXiv, seem to have had a similar plagiarism-dissuading effect.)

Regarding saying stupid things on a blog, I think it’s fine so long as it is made clear that what you are saying is speculative or tentative, and also if one acknowledges and corrects errors rapidly. It’s only when one tries to authoritatively assert something which turns out to be highly inaccurate, but refuses to admit that there is a problem, that one gets into trouble…

Posted by: Terence Tao on August 12, 2009 1:09 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The other side of the coin

Terry wrote:

I don’t know of any example so far in which an idea in a maths blog has been plagiarised (not counting the spam blogs that copy posts wholesale).

This is a fear lurking in the back of my mind: what qualifies for citation and what doesn’t in math? More importantly, what requires citation and what doesn’t?

For example, I’ve used a few definitions from a handout by John Baez, but I’ve cited him when I’ve done so (e.g. the definition of a category)…is it kosher how I’ve done it, or should a more explicit citation be given (“Dr Baez defines a category as…”)?

Should the rule of thumb be “Better to cite too explicitly than not explicitly enough”?

Posted by: pqnelson on August 12, 2009 7:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The other side of the coin

pqnelson wrote:

Should the rule of thumb be “Better to cite too explicitly than not explicitly enough”?

That’s one good rule of thumb. In full-fledged academic discourse you can also get in trouble for citing Prof. P (whose book you learned the stuff from) but not Prof. Q (who invented the stuff in the first place).

I think your citation of me here was just about right. Nobody would expect you to cite a reference for the definition of ‘category’ — it’s become ‘standard’. But if you want to provide Mac Lane’s book as an authoritative reference, that’s great. And if you want to provide my notes as a quick online reference, that’s also helpful. But you don’t want to accidentally fool anyone into thinking I invented the definition of category, or thinking you think I did. So you should not say something like “According to Dr. Baez, the definition of a category is….”

Posted by: John Baez on August 12, 2009 5:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The other side of the coin

It’s probably foolhardy of me to try to sound authoritative about this subject on this particular blog, but one could probably take that as a rough definition of a crank. (Or at least a first approximation thereof; I suppose that, for instance, Louis de Branges fits that criterion, but relatively few would call him a crank outright.)

On the other hand, you don’t want to overqualify everything you say (which is more what I find myself having slight problems with occasionally); the famous dictum about remaining quiet and being thought a fool, etc., shouldn’t apply to blogging, where it’s vastly more important to be able to admit to your own temporary stupidity.

Posted by: harrison on August 12, 2009 7:50 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Some concerns about mathematical bloggings

Here are some concerns about mathematical bloggings (ML):

1) ML may sharpen attention inequality between mathematicians, areas, and problems

2) The inbalance in 1) will be, in part, based on issues which are orthogonal to mathematics

3) ML could make mathematical activity more entangled; harder for independent ideas to get thoroughly and independently studied

4) ML make it more difficult for non-English speaking mathematicians

5) ML may shift interest to informal (even vague) discussions of conceptual issues (or even gossip issues) rather than the technically and rigourous traditional way of doing mathematics

6) ML will blur the borders between research activity, pedagogical activity, and scientific journalism

7) ML will give incentives to “high rating activity” which maybe negatively correlated with high quality mathematics.

Posted by: Gil Kalai on August 13, 2009 7:23 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Some concerns about mathematical bloggings

I think it’s good to think about the negative aspects of blogging and try to figure out ways to lessen them.

Gil wrote:

ML [math blogs] could make mathematical activity more entangled; harder for independent ideas to get thoroughly and independently studied.

I agree with that. But in the published literature, mathematics tends to be highly specialized, with even the most microscopic ideas being studied in great detail. So, I think it’s basically good to provide forums where mathematical ideas can be discussed in a more ‘entangled’ — I might say ‘integrated’ — form.

ML may shift interest to informal (even vague) discussions of conceptual issues (or even gossip issues) rather than the technically and rigourous traditional way of doing mathematics.

I agree. But I think informal and vague discussions of conceptual issues are very important. For example, it’s through discussions like these that people decide what to work on.

There have always been such discussions. Traditionally they have been carried out in conversation, and to some extent privately. I think there are good things about doing it publicly in written form. Of course this can also have negative effects, but I think on the whole it helps the world to see these informal conversations.

Posted by: John Baez on August 16, 2009 9:37 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Perhaps the following advantage hasn’t been mentioned so far.

The blog I maintain is mostly for students and my posts mostly replies to questions. But I’ve found it to be practically very useful when traveling. That is, most research mathematicians are on the road quite a bit, and have to reschedule office hours frequently. The blog helps the students feel constantly connected, giving the mathematician a good deal of freedom of motion. As far as time goes, I think most of us have periods when we’re not quite focussed enough for research (say in a hotel room), and it seems not so hard to fit in some extra writing then. Of course there is also the fact that the same question doesn’t have to be answered twice.

Posted by: Minhyong Kim on August 13, 2009 9:36 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Sorry to have come late to this interesting thread – I hope John, at least, is still reading.

I think that math blogs will flourish to the extent that barriers to entry, both real and perceived, get lower. To some extent that’s simply a function of it being perceived as a “normal” thing for a mathematician to do. More specific thoughts on this:

1. My own blog is quite a bit different from the “usual” math blog, if there’s yet such a thing. Namely: it’s really a personal blog in which about 30% of the posts are in some sense about math, and the rest is about books I’m reading, records I’m listening to, the baseball team I follow – you know, the stuff that 95% of all blogs are about.

On the one hand, I think this makes my blog less “serious” – on the other hand, WordPress makes it very easy for anyone who doesn’t care about my favorite baseball team to read only the posts tagged “math.”

I think many people who don’t feel up to the task of producing the amount of high-quality mathematical exposition per week that Terry does might feel more capable of, thus more inclined towards, doing what I do.


2. Writing good exposition suitable for newcomers to a technical field is very, very hard, and simply can’t be done in a short space. If I asked this of myself all the time I wouldn’t blog. Instead, I use blog posts about new papers I’ve noticed or talks I’ve seen as ways to record for myself what I take to be the main points, or what I want to remember. Sometimes these posts are legible to people outside a specific research area, sometimes not. I think this is OK and we should make sure potential bloggers know this is OK.

3. I rarely use LaTeX in my blog, just as I rarely use LaTeX in e-mails about math. Somehow this works for me as a psychological aid, reminding me that what I’m writing is supposed to be conversational and not something I’d write in a paper.

4. Someone asked above about the actual size of the readership of math blogs. Mine is very small compared to Tim’s or Terry’s or nCat – about 130 subscribers on Google Reader, between 200 and 300 hits most days, somewhere between 0 and 5 comments on most posts. It’s worth telling people that your blog doesn’t have to be mega-popular to be worthwhile; I’ve found my blog to be fantastically satisfying, and I don’t begrudge any of the time spent writing it.

5. Now I’ll throw in one piece of barrier-raising: I think the concern of “sounding stupid” is one that senior folks like me, and many other math bloggers, can safely ignore. But younger mathematicians are not at all wrong to worry about it. I’ve certainly had the experience of hearing that senior mathematician X has formed a bad opinion of young mathematician Y because of wrong or careless postings on Y’s blog.

On the other hand, any blog likely to generate this kind of negative reaction from professor X_1 no doubt increases Y’s name recognition enough to helpful at hiring time, when blog-reading hiring commmittee members X_2, X_3, and X_4 have some prior knowledge of Y’s interests and work.

Posted by: J. Ellenberg on August 17, 2009 3:43 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Thanks for your comments! I’m definitely still reading — I’ve just been distracted by other chores. In a while I will cough up a draft of my opinion piece, which will masterfully synthesize and compress everything said here into 800 words. And then everyone can tell me why it sucks. And then I’ll improve it and make it even more perfect than before.

Posted by: John Baez on August 17, 2009 6:04 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

One way of lowering barriers to otherwise busy or lazy potential bloggers is to provide them with a single destination on the web where they can go and read about the actual process (nuts and bolts) of setting up and running a blog from those mathematicians who have already been there. If someone does not have to reinvent the wheel, they are more likely to get rolling with it.

The idea that one’s blog does not have to be 100% mathematics is a good one. The physicists seem to be less inhibited about veering off into any non-physics topics that interest them. Personally, if someone wants to throw in comments about music, food, movies, novels, nature, or even the the critters in their back yard, I would not mind at all.

Posted by: Richard on August 18, 2009 3:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Richard wrote:

One way of lowering barriers to otherwise busy or lazy potential bloggers is to provide them with a single destination on the web where they can go and read about the actual process (nuts and bolts) of setting up and running a blog from those mathematicians who have already been there.

Great idea! I hereby decree that it should be done!

Personally, if someone wants to throw in comments about music, food, movies, novels, nature, or even the the critters in their back yard, I would not mind at all.

I try mightily to restrain myself and talk only about math, physics and philosophy on this blog, putting everything else in my online diary. I don’t always succeed… but I think it helps the nn-Café keep its high energy level. We’re doing serious stuff here: trying to understand the mysteries of the cosmos! No frigging brownie recipes, please.

But I like the solution adopted on J. Ellenberg’s blog: if you only want math, you just go here, and he looks like a monomaniac who only cares about math.

Posted by: John Baez on August 18, 2009 9:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Is there really that much to say about how to set up a blog? For instance, to set up a wordpress blog, one visits www.wordpress.com, clicks on the big obvious button, follows instructions, and explores the various menu options. Apart from this, perhaps the only other thing one really needs to know is how to write LaTeX in wordpress. Any further instructions may make the process seem more complicated than it actually is - it’s not as if one has to learn HTML, CSS, RSS, MathML, etc., for instance (though a little bit of this is useful).

Posted by: Terence Tao on August 18, 2009 10:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

If in fact it really is this easy to set up a blog with wordpress, then that’s wonderful! But the many people who probably don’t realize this still need this explanation, perhaps in exactly this way, in order to reassure them that there is minimal effort getting started and that they are not going to get lost in the swamp.

Posted by: Richard on August 19, 2009 4:00 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Richard wrote:

If in fact it really is this easy to set up a blog with wordpress, then that’s wonderful! But the many people who probably don’t realize this still need this explanation, perhaps in exactly this way, in order to reassure them…

I agree. If everyone here agrees that it’s easy to set up a math blog with wordpress, I’ll tell the world it’s true.

Posted by: John Baez on August 19, 2009 7:15 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Terence wrote:

Is there really that much to say about how to set up a blog?

Maybe not: it seems like any Fields medalist can do it. My own experience is atypical since at the nn-Café we’re using Jacques Distler’s homegrown software, invented before Wordpress could do math formulas. So, I don’t really know how easy other people think it is.

Maybe other people can report their experiences?

You’re right that overly detailed instructions can make this sort of thing seem much harder than it is. If shoes came with a manual, nobody would dare tie their own laces. It’s probably best to just say “Don’t be scared, just do it.”

By the way, my remark “I hereby decree that it should be done!” was — I hope it’s clear — a joke about how on the internet there are those who say others should do things, and those who actually do things, and how the latter rightly look down on the former.

Posted by: John Baez on August 18, 2009 10:43 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I’ll echo what Terence said: starting up a blog on Wordpress is a complete triviality, and so is (for the most part) rendering mathematical formulas using LaTeX. (I am well qualified to make such a statement, because not only do I coauthor a blog with Vishal Lama – I am also a complete idiot when it comes to any sort of computer technology. Talk of SVG and CSS and whatnot flies right over my head.)

If you already know LaTeX, then on Wordpress blogs you enter mathmode with the usual dollar signs, with the command ‘latex’ right after the first dollar sign. That’s it!

It’s not so much starting one’s own blog that’s a worry – for me a larger worry is trying keep pace with what other bloggers are doing. There is just so much out there, and I find myself bewildered when I hear other people say that they read hundreds of blogs a day. I get the sense that there must be an awful lot of skimming then, and not a great deal of concentrated attention – and thus every blogger must ask himself or herself how much work they want to put into it, what with people’s attention being somewhat scattered as it is.

The Fields Medalist’s blogs (Terry Tao’s, Timothy Gowers’s) quite rightly command a lot of attention – one can see how much thought and care go into them. But other up-and-coming bloggers may have to “fight” harder to be noticed, and moreover, once it’s born, the blog can become a little like some of those Tamagotchi “pets” – if it doesn’t receive regular care, it can languish and “die” (meaning: lose regular and cherished readers).

So, I’d say it’s very easy to get started, but it can definitely become a commitment. Go in only if you intend to have fun doing it (as we would tell people who are contemplating a career in mathematics)!

Posted by: Todd Trimble on August 18, 2009 11:59 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Todd wrote:

I find myself bewildered when I hear other people say that they read hundreds of blogs a day.

I think those people use RSS feed aggregators that automatically keep track of hundreds of blogs and only report to you when a new article shows up on one of those blogs. Lots of blogs cough up new articles quite infrequently — see for example the latest exciting item on Ars Mathematica, which dates back to the 8th of July.

But I’ve never figured out how to use RSS feed aggregators — at least, not in any way that makes it easy to follow hundreds of blogs. Luckily I’m pretty happy most of the time reading just one blog. Occasionally I get bored, but… whoops, here comes Jim Dolan.

Posted by: John Baez on August 19, 2009 12:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

I use an RSS feed myself, but I didn’t set it up myself. How to do that is might be good information for would-be bloggers to know.

It sounds as though you’re suggesting that those people I mentioned, most of them, must have meant that they have several hundred subscriptions on their feeder, not that they literally read hundreds of blog articles a day. You could well be right about that. I have only about a dozen myself on my RSS feed, and sometimes I just surf around between the ones I visit via the blog rolls (which are good things to have!).

Posted by: Todd Trimble on August 19, 2009 1:14 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Using Google reader or other aggregators doesn’t require any significant effort either. There’s a button on the left for adding subscriptions, which you can do by putting in a URL, which is usually the URL of the blog plus /feed/ at the end. This will work for all WordPress blogs; if you want to add other blogs, Ctrl+F for a link that says “RSS feed” or something similar on the blog and use whatever link that gets you.

You can also sort subscriptions into folders and so forth. You can even get arXiv updates this way.

Posted by: Qiaochu Yuan on August 21, 2009 1:06 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Heh, Yael Fregier’s “battle” model of publication is a great idea. Why not? (Also found the “Annales de Gergone” amusing).

My two cents on math blogs are: Firstly, they’re really really great for people far away from big mathematical centres; they’re manna from heaven for mathematicians in the developing world and from Africa etc. who wouldn’t normally get such a golden chance to be “in the loop” with the latest mathematical news and ideas. Gives everyone a fair chance: if you never got to go to the University of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, you can at least now learn how people from those places think, which is priceless. Secondly, how about introducing emoticon comments, so that we “feel” each other more. A comment rating system is currently going at What’s New; I’m thinking of something just a little different; more “emotions”-centred than “ratings”-centred (perhaps this can be done in Wordpress already?). Something like a small panel of emoticons below each comment, like this:

emoticons pic

You click on a dim emoticon, and it gets brighter. You can click on more than one. (Sorry, I stole those from John’s classic collection on his webpage).

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on August 19, 2009 10:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

This is about Bruce’s “annotation” suggestion: one of the reasons for scoring is to help you decide what’s worth reading (the volume is here is manageable so that’s probably not a necessary goal). If annotation serves a similar goal, then it’d be really, really useful to put them at the top of the post rather than at the bottom. (This score positioning, along with the fact that dates get put at the bottom as well, is one of the things that infuriates me about most varieites of blog software: I only “naturally” see the information after the point at which it would have been most useful. I can sorta see an egalitarian reason for keeping the commenter at the bottom, so people don’t decide to filter their reading based on author. I also know writing sytle sheets for blogs isn’t an easy thing to do.) This also cuts the other way sometimes: Terry Tao’s layout puts the number of comments in article header, whereas it’s more useful after you’ve read the article. To be fair, most of his articles “continue below the fold” so if you’ve clicked to finish the full article you get the comments without a further click.

Posted by: bane on September 4, 2009 4:28 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Jacques Distler’s homegrown software

I just want to say that although this is atypical, and may not turn out to be the wave of the future, I really, really like it. I enjoy just looking at this blog in a way that I don’t think I really do for any other mathematical blog. It’s particularly nice that if I set my browser with a particular font or funny colours (which I do), that just gets picked up by the maths automatically, without black-on-white-on-black weirdness or ugly glyphs. There are many other good things about it (the elegant and legible nesting of comments chains in threads (so long as they don’t get too deep), etc). I’m really grateful to Jacques (and more recently other technical contributers such as Andrew Stacey).

Sorry, not quite relevant (and I know some people disagree), but I felt it was something I needed to say.

Posted by: Tim Silverman on August 19, 2009 1:33 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

There may be a difference between what math instructors need to know about blogging and what mathematicians need to know about blogging.

When I’ve looked around the math blogging world, there seem to be two groups of bloggers - those that focus mostly on the scholarship of teaching and learning math, and those that focus on high-level mathematical research.

Since you’re writing for the AMS, I suspect you’re focusing on that second group of bloggers. However, there are many useful math blogs out there who’s primary focus is to improve teaching and learning.

Personally, I blog to synthesize what I’ve learned and to share it with others to help flatten the learning curve.

I’ve been blogging about math, teaching, and technology for 2 years now over at Teaching College Math.

Posted by: Maria H. Andersen on August 21, 2009 1:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Maria wrote:

Since you’re writing for the AMS, I suspect you’re focusing on that second group of bloggers.

Yeah — and it’s a bit embarrassing, now that you mention it. I actually take teaching pretty seriously, as well as research, but the MAA/AMS split tends to divide the math world into ‘teaching’ and ‘research’. Thanks for pointing out the importance of blogs that focus on teaching math.

Posted by: John Baez on August 21, 2009 9:14 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging?

Blogging is a great option for some personality types: for people who generate ideas faster than they can write papers, especially for people who can lose their interest in a particular small subject very fast.

It takes me several months to write a paper, and several days to write a blog essay. By blogging I get my emotional reward, that I have accomplished something, much more often.

Posted by: Tanya Khovanova on September 4, 2009 2:35 AM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II
Weblog: The n-Category Café
Excerpt: Help me write an opinion piece on math blogging for the AMS Notices!
Tracked: September 30, 2009 2:20 AM

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