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September 30, 2009

What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Posted by John Baez

A while back, Steven Krantz asked me to write an opinion piece about math blogging in the AMS Notices. I asked you what I should say, and we had a great conversation about it.

Today, with the deadline fast approaching, I quickly cranked out a draft of this piece. I’d love to hear your comments. But beware: there’s a word limit of 800 words, and I’ve spent 750 so far! So, I can’t add much unless I take something away.

One thing I will add is a pointer to the online list of math blogs and wikis at the n-Lab, which also contains a link to our previous conversation. Do you know math blogs and wikis that should be on that list, but aren’t? If so, please add them!

Here it is:

Should you blog about mathematics? Before I answer this, I should say what “blogging” is, since there are probably still 3 or 4 people who don’t know.

A “web log”, or “blog” for short, lets you write about whatever you want and make it visible online. Your entries are displayed in reverse-chronological order, people reading them can post comments, and you can reply to those comments. I could describe how to set up a blog, but that would make it seem harder than it is. Any idiot can do it, and many do. Websites like Wordpress and Blogger will lead you through the process step by step— and they’re free.

For a while, math blogging was held back by the difficulty of including equations. Now Wordpress allows for TeX, and with some work you can install it on Blogger as well. So, we are now seeing a flowering of math blogs—and for some mathematicians, blogging has become an important part of their research activity.

I started blogging in a primitive way back in 1993, with an online column called This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics. The idea was to write brief summaries of papers I’d just read, and explain interesting stuff. I soon discovered that when I made mistakes, readers would kindly correct them—and when I admitted that I didn’t understand things, experts would appear from nowhere and help me out. Other math bloggers report similar results. If you explain math in a friendly, informal but clear way, it helps you understand things better–and you’ll get readers eager to repay you with with useful information. Some of these readers may become friends, or collaborators.

In 2006, I joined forces with David Corfield and Urs Schreiber to start The nn-Category Café, a group blog on math, physics and philosophy. My column is now just a small part of lively discussion of topics ranging from elliptic cohomology, tensor categories and type theory to “mathematics as a vocation”–and all these examples were taken just from comments that appeared on one randomly chosen day!

By now there are over 50 math blogs in English. At least four are by Fields Medalists: in particular, Timothy Gowers and Terry Tao have famously popular ones. Some math blogs are focused on specific topics: for example, Low-Dimensional Topology and Motivic Stuff. Some roam all over the map. Some start with great enthusiasm but sink into inactivity. To keep the conversation going, it helps to team up with a group of friends. A great example is the Secret Blogging Seminar, run by 8 recent math Berkeley Ph.D.’s.

Should you blog about mathematics? Judging from what I’ve seen, you should do it if you like explaining things, enjoy informal public discussions, and can keep a cool head when tempers rise. Some mathematicians are too worried about making a fool of themselves in public to enjoy blogging. Others are too afraid of offending people. And if my joke about ‘idiots’ upset you, blogging may be too hard-knuckled for you.

Even for those with the right personality and social skills, running a good blog takes practice. So, if you haven’t done so already, spend a while reading blogs before trying to start your own. The same problems keep coming up, and you’ll see better and worse ways to deal with them.

Of course, there’s no need to start your own blog to get some of the benefits. You can get a lot out of just reading blogs, and much more if you ask or answer questions. Math blogs are also a great way for students and amateurs to get a sense of what research is like. Academic math bloggers spend a lot of time talking about conferences, theorems they’d like to prove, papers they’re writing, and many other things that aren’t visible in the published literature. The discussions that were once confined to the math department lounge are now conducted worldwide. While not without problems, this is a truly wonderful thing.

Here are a few examples of what math blogs can do, all taken from the The nn-Category Café. Blog entries by Urs Schreiber (a postdoc in Germany) led to online discussions which blossomed into collaborative papers with Dave Roberts (a graduate student in Australia) and James Stasheff (the well-known American topologist)—neither of whom he had ever met, except online. A discussion on stratified spaces has been developed into a paper by Jonathan Woolf. And perhaps most importantly, an online community has formed that has differential geometers, topologists, category theorists regularly talking to physicists, computer scientists, and philosophers of mathematics.

The internet has been around for a while, but we are far from figuring out everything we can do with it. The arXiv, electronic journals and math blogs are just a few of the possibilities. Recently math bloggers have been trying some new ideas. The nn-Category Café now has an associated wiki, the “nn-Lab”, which provides a place for collaborative research and expository writing on math. Timothy Gowers and Terry Tao are using blogs together with a wiki to organize a series of “Polymath” projects, where large numbers of people cooperate to prove theorems. Thanks to Jacques Distler, the arXiv now has links to blog entries that discuss the articles there. Mathematicians are discussing more ambitious systems for reviewing and commenting on papers online. One can imagine many more experiments with the technology we have, and still more with the technology yet to come. Some will work, some will not. It’s an adventure.

Posted at September 30, 2009 2:05 AM UTC

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Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Hi John,

There’s a typo at the beginning of paragraph 6. I’m guessing that should be “By now there”

Posted by: Greg Friedman on September 30, 2009 2:38 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

There’s a typo at the beginning of paragraph 6. I’m guessing that should be “By now there”

And is there any chance that I can convince you that there's no apostrophe in the plural that ends that paragraph?

Posted by: Toby Bartels on September 30, 2009 7:37 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Greg: Thanks for catching that typo.

Toby: I assume the AMS Notices copy-editors will render their judgement on whether that word should “Ph.D.s”, “Ph.D.’s”, or the more formal “phudniks”. I was just quoting the website.

Posted by: John Baez on October 1, 2009 8:39 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I was really enjoying this blog but then discovered that it had ended abruptly in 2009. What happened?

Posted by: Joel Stottlemire on November 26, 2012 3:29 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Which blog abruptly ended in 2009?

Posted by: John Baez on November 26, 2012 4:36 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Heh. “recent and future” is no longer accurate. We’ve all graduated! Clearly time to update our blog’s profile.

Posted by: A.J. on September 30, 2009 2:41 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

And by graduating not only did we earn Ph.D.’s we’ve also earned you two words which you can spend elsewhere! Thanks for the kind words.

Posted by: Noah Snyder on September 30, 2009 3:00 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Okay, I’ll delete ‘and future’.

But why aren’t you guys replenishing yourselves by recruiting some current grad students?

Posted by: John Baez on September 30, 2009 3:59 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Well, at some point adding more people would make it no longer feel like our blog. Which is not to say that we wouldn’t ever add more people, but it would be more likely to be someone who a bunch of us knew than a new young grad student at Berkeley.

Though if another clump of Berkeley grad students wanted to start their own blog we’d certainly be thrilled to link to it.

Posted by: Noah Snyder on September 30, 2009 4:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Thanks for the shout-out. When will this appear in the Notices? Perhaps we better get ready with some extra-fabulous content. :-)

Posted by: Scott Morrison on September 30, 2009 7:57 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Looks good to me!

Is “nn-Category Caf’e” in the last paragraph a typo, perhaps wanting to be “nn-Category Café”?

I want to suggest that you add something to the last paragraph regarding the recent discussions on the algtop-l mailing list about a wiki review system, but I’m not sure whether that’s important enough to deserve your 50 remaining words.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on September 30, 2009 3:20 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Thanks for catching that typo — but I’ll have to translate my HTML back into TeX when I send this to Krantz.

I want to suggest that you add something to the last paragraph regarding the recent discussions on the algtop-l mailing list about a wiki review system, but I’m not sure whether that’s important enough to deserve your 50 remaining words.

It’s important enough… not the discussion, but the idea of wiki math reviews. Maybe a word about arXiv trackbacks to blogs, too!

Since I’m a hidebound reactionary determined to suppress revolutionary insights, I won’t talk about the viXra.

Posted by: John Baez on September 30, 2009 3:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

It would be good if you could mention viXra. By its nature, it has a very mixed bag of content but it is not all “revolutionary insights” as you (perhaps euphemistically) put it. Many of the papers in viXra have been published in journals and are just from people doing ordinary science.

There are lots of people working in maths and physics that find the submission restrictions of arXiv too much trouble to bother with. I notice especially in my research that a low proportion of maths papers are available through open access. Submission policies need to be more open too if open access is going to work.

viXra also does blog trackbacks.

Posted by: PhilG on October 8, 2009 8:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Fixed link: viXra

Posted by: Toby Bartels on October 8, 2009 7:31 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I want to suggest that you add something to the last paragraph regarding the recent discussions on the algtop-l mailing list about a wiki review system, but I’m not sure whether that’s important enough to deserve your 50 remaining words.

Which now has a forum all of its own: the imaginatively named r-Forum (Yup, I can set these things up in my sleep now). I wouldn’t waste 50 words in the article on it, but I would encourage anyone interested to contribute to the debate.

(Unfortunately, despite the similarity in name, it doesn’t share login information with the superlative n-forum. I could figure out a way to integrate the two, but then I could also get on with some pending n-labish tasks - which would be preferable?)

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on October 2, 2009 4:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I can’t think of any compelling reason to spend time integrating them. Creating a new account on the r-Forum is not a huge hardship.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on October 2, 2009 5:28 PM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

> Now Wordpress allows for TeX, and you can install it on Blogger as well

Can you expand on that? You saying I can use TeX with blogger?

Posted by: Dan Piponi on September 30, 2009 3:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

That’s what I was told during our last conversation on this subject. I’m not sure how easy it is.

Posted by: John Baez on September 30, 2009 6:14 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

It’s easy to implement but has major drawbacks. It requires javascript so doesn’t play well with rss and news aggregators. It relies on a 3rd party web site so doesn’t play well with offline reading. And of course it relies on that 3rd party web site being up all the time.

Posted by: Dan Piponi on September 30, 2009 5:17 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

One Peter Jipsen has compiled a slightly-better looking javascript described and used and linked here. Being thus self-contained, I’d have thought it should be easy to port into a blogger widget/google gadget, only I’ve been throughly thwarted so-far. It doesn’t help never to have written one before! As it happens, the tag
<script src=’http://www1.chapman.edu/~jipsen/mathml/asciimath.html’ type=’text/javascript’/>
works very nicely in the head of a blogger template; The very similar script LaTeXMathML by Dr Douglas R. Woodall performs a more focused task, and he even encourages direct reference to his own copy.

Excuse me while I write Prof. Jipsen, on whether he approves such use of his school’s connection resources, until a cleverer blogger ‘blog-er than I writes a better gadget; or might the nLab have room for hosting a copy?

Posted by: some guy on the street on October 27, 2009 4:00 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

OK, Dr. Woodall doesn’t encourage direct use of his copy, but he does give explicit permission.

Posted by: some guy on the street on October 27, 2009 4:39 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

There was a Third Way: have the .js hosted on a world-visible sites.google.com site, and refer to it in your blog.

Cheerio, everyone!

Posted by: some guy on the street on October 27, 2009 8:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Here is the instruction of how to install latex on blogger:
Latex on Blogger

Posted by: watchmath on October 6, 2009 9:35 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

You might want to clarify a little more how a blog differs from other sorts of webpages. In particular that they’re meant to be regularly updated with new separate material.

I’m not sure the best language to phrase that, but I think people who genuinely don’t know what a blog is won’t get the right picture from the paragraph as currently constructed.

Posted by: Noah Snyder on September 30, 2009 4:42 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

1. In the last sentence of the second paragraph, you use the word “commercial” to describe Wordpress and Blogger, but also describe them as “free”. I’d suggest dropping the word “commercial” here, to eliminate a possible source of mild confusion.

2. I think the penultimate paragraph (which says “there’s no need to start your own blog to get some of the benefits”) could be made stronger by explicitly encouraging the reader to ‘join the conversation’ on an existing blog. Commenting is an easy way to dip a toe into the blogging world (and is often a gateway drug to starting a blog), and is probably the best way for an individual to answer for him/herself the question that you open the article with.

Posted by: Stuart on September 30, 2009 8:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

In the last sentence of the second paragraph, you use the word “commercial” to describe Wordpress and Blogger, but also describe them as “free”. I’d suggest dropping the word “commercial” here, to eliminate a possible source of mild confusion.

You could also change it to ‘proprietary’ if you want to avoid the impression that they are run solely for the good of humankind. (^_^)

Posted by: Toby Bartels on September 30, 2009 7:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Hi John, I really like the draft article, especially since it addresses some of the misgiving mathematicians (or for that matter anyone else) might have about starting blogs or participating in the blogosphere.

Also, I spotted a typo in the penultimate paragraph “math blogs are a great way way for students”.

Posted by: Dan Hagon on September 30, 2009 10:36 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Thanks! Typo fixed.

Posted by: John Baez on September 30, 2009 4:53 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Looks good! Could you use the spare 50 words to give a concrete illustration of something good that has come from the blog? Urs has spoken about collaborations which wouldn’t otherwise have happened. Perhaps you could explain that some real work has been done there.

Posted by: David Corfield on September 30, 2009 1:34 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I second that. I couldn’t believe it when Urs asked me to write a paper with him. Me! From little ol’ Adelaide with scanty travel opportunities! :)

Posted by: David Roberts on September 30, 2009 11:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I couldn’t believe it when Urs asked me to write a paper with him.

And actually it’s even better than that:

not that people get the impression that I just send David an email asking him to collaborate:

the important point from my perspective is that I would never have known that David would be the one to contact about what I was thinking about, had he not reacted to something I had posted to the blog.

This is the optimal situation that makes blogging worthwhile for me:

- somebody posts something to the blog, talking about what he or she is thinking about, but leaving things half-baked.

- someone else from somewhere else in the wide world, not unlikeky one from a handful or possibly even the single person on this planet in the right state and mood to react to such thoughts reacts.

- and suddenly there is collaboration.

It happened to me a few times here, and it is what makes blogging worthwhile:

- David Roberts had picked up my unfinished notes that we are currently again talking about in Question on nn-Curvature and then we wrote that article about it.

- Jim Stasheff at some point saw my posts on what back then was called the “FDA laboratory” and sent me an email asking me to publish this stuff together. The outcome was a series of articles related to the stuff we are currently again discussing at DF-formulation of supergravity. Never ever would I have thought of contacting Jim by myself in th first place.

- Lately Johan Alm had contacted me about his thoughts on how to formalize and prove the nn-Café Quantum Conjecture, saying that quantization is pushforward to the point. I hadn’t even known that somebody called Johan Alm existed! :-) How would we have learned of each other? Recently he visited me in Hamburg and we worked hard on this together.

Generally, the point of blogging for me is to get reactions and feedback and have exchange. What would my life be had I never had the exchange I had here with people like, say, Todd Trimble, Mike Shulman or David Ben-Zvi.

It would be nice if such interaction happened even more often, but probably one can’t ask for too much.

Other kinds of interactions that I had been hoping the blog would serve to accomplish never quite worked out. For instance for a long time I had thought that one joint topic that was kind of a bracket of much of the discussion on the blog was the investigation of the category-theoretic abstract nonsense of quantization. It seemed that we had the unique mix of the right people with the right mix of expertise to tackle that. This was back then the reason why I spoke of the “nn-Café quantum conjecture” and at one point even tried to summarize What had happend so far. Later I finally realized that I had been being very naive and illusioned here and that this joint blog program had only existed in my fantasy.

Which doesn’t mean that it can’t work in principle.

Posted by: Urs Schreiber on October 1, 2009 10:36 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Okay, I put in this paragraph:

Here are a few examples of what math blogs can do, all taken from the The nn-Category Café. Blog entries by Urs Schreiber (a postdoc in Germany) led to online discussions which blossomed into collaborative papers with Dave Roberts (a graduate student in Australia) and James Stasheff (the well-known American topologist)—neither of whom he had ever met, except online. A discussion on nn-categories and stratified spaces has been developed into a paper by Jonathan Woolf. And perhaps most importantly, an online community has formed that has differential geometers, topologists, category theorists regularly talking to physicists, computer scientists, and philosophers of mathematics.

By the way, Woolf’s paper is really cool. It’s not out yet…

Posted by: John Baez on October 1, 2009 5:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

And don’t underestimate the importance of the peanut gallery!

In the early days, e.g. at The String Coffee table, who knows if you would have been motivated enough to continue without knowing at least one person was out there always interested and reading every post :)

Posted by: Eric Forgy on October 1, 2009 5:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

“The internet is still a very new thing”, without qualification, may elicit some grouchy comments from people who were using some form of the net decades before the web existed (not to mention those who insist it should be written “Internet”). Not that I think you’re that concerned about ruffling grouchy feathers, and in any case I like the whole point of the last paragraph.

Speaking of projects that grew out of Tim Gowers’s bog, did you consider mentioning the Tricki?

Posted by: Mark Meckes on September 30, 2009 2:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Of course I meant Tim Gowers’s blog. There ought to be something funny to say here about things growing out of a bog, but it’s not occuring to me.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on September 30, 2009 3:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Mark wrote:

“The internet is still a very new thing”, without qualification, may elicit some grouchy comments from people who were using some form of the net decades before the web existed (not to mention those who insist it should be written “Internet”).

Personally I always try to put everything into a grand historical perspective. Heck, for me humans are still a very new thing! To me, something is ‘new’ if it hasn’t yet reached its potential, come to equilibrium, or fizzled out. That’s why I said: “The internet is still a very new thing. We are far from figuring out everything we can do with it.”

But you’re probably right: there must be lots of people out there who think that something decades old is automatically not ‘new’ — as if Webster’s defined ‘new’ to mean ‘less than 5 years old’.

So, I’ll rewrite these sentences so people who don’t share my sense of history will still understand them.

The simplest way would be to replace the period by a colon, but maybe that’s too subtle.

Posted by: John Baez on September 30, 2009 4:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

there are over 50 math blogs

500 or 1000 might be much more realistic figure.

And if you add theoretic CS blogs, you’ll get another 500 or 1000, easily.

Posted by: Dima Pasechnik on September 30, 2009 3:01 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Can you give any evidence that there are between 500 and 1000 math blogs? I’d love to know about them.

Posted by: John Baez on September 30, 2009 4:52 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I’m not so sure about this figure, at least not for blogs run by academics.

That said, the following list should be added to the n-Lab list, many folks have worked on it:

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

Posted by: AnotherAnonymous on September 30, 2009 5:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Do you mean blogs in all languages, or just English?

Posted by: Tom on September 30, 2009 6:55 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Whoops! In my estimate of “over 50 math blogs”, I was implicitly talking about blogs in English. It was idiotically Anglocentric of me to do this without mentioning it. I’ve fixed that. Thanks, Tom!

I think that for readers of the AMS Notices it would be interesting to know roughly how many English-language math blogs there are. So far all I have is the lower bound provided by the nLab list and the above-cited list, which I’m trying to merge into the nnLab list.

So: at least 55 or so.

Posted by: John Baez on October 1, 2009 9:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

If you choose to point to the nLab list of blogs rather than the original list mentioned by AnotherAnonymous above, then I believe it would make sense to give the nLab page some more structure, for example subject headings, or (as Mike Shulman already suggested) a short note describing the content of each blog. I am just trying to imagine someone who has never visited a blog before, but went to check out this page after reading your piece. It would be really nice if he/she could find something of interest to them immediately, rather than having to search through 20 different blogs (which most likely wouldn’t happen).

Of course it could be tricky writing a short note about other people’s blogs, so the subject heading solution is maybe better? Or maybe there is an even better way of structuring the page?

Posted by: Andreas Holmstrom on October 1, 2009 12:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

This comment suggests:

the following list should be added to the n-Lab

Andreas Holmstrom also writes:

I believe it would make sense to give the nnLab page some more structure

Great. I suppose you both know How To? Looking forward to seeing your additions!

Posted by: Urs Schreiber on October 1, 2009 10:02 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Andreas wrote:

Or maybe there is an even better way of structuring the page?

Don’t worry about it too much — just try to improve it, and someone else will come along later and improve it more.

Talking about it here only diverts energy from actually doing something.

Posted by: John Baez on October 1, 2009 9:47 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Nice article!

The same problems keep coming up, and there are better and worse ways to deal with them.

This is a rather elliptic comment - I’d say either expand with examples of the sort of problems you have in mind, or delete.

Posted by: Richard Elwes on October 1, 2009 9:20 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

The remark you quote follows my sentence “If you haven’t done so already, spend a while reading blogs before trying to start your own”. My point is that you need to observe blogs to see which approaches to dealing with people are successful.

I’ve tried to make this passage clearer:

Running a really good blog takes some particular social skills. The same problems keep coming up, and there are better and worse ways to deal with them. So, if you haven’t done so already, spend a while reading blogs before trying to start your own.

Thanks!

Posted by: John Baez on October 1, 2009 9:10 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

John wrote:

By now there are over 50 math blogs in English. At least four are by Fields Medalists: in particular, Timothy Gowers and Terry Tao have famously popular ones.

Perhaps you should mention all four? I know Alain Connes is blogging/has been blogging, but who is the last one?

Posted by: Sune Kristian Jakobsen on October 1, 2009 9:40 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

If Richard Borcherd’s blog is intended, it should be noted that this lasted seven posts, the most recent being in January 2008. And Alain Connes’ blog is hardly thriving.

Posted by: David Corfield on October 1, 2009 10:04 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

David is right; I didn’t want to mention Connes and Borcherds by name because someone who got excited and started looking for extensive blog posts by these great mathematicians might come away disappointed.

Borcherds wrote some great blog entries, which I recommend highly… but I guess he got distracted.

His blog is an example of what I meant by writing: “Some start with great enthusiasm but sink into inactivity.”

Posted by: John Baez on October 1, 2009 8:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Personally, I’d remove the “any idiot can do it, and many do”, gaining 8 words.
Everyone is an idiot to someone else…

Posted by: Emmanuel Kowalski on October 1, 2009 1:22 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Of course that sentence was a joke. Indeed, everyone is an idiot to someone else — that’s why there are so many!

But I want to keep that sentence in — first because I want to emphasize how easy it is to set up a blog (‘any idiot can do it’), and second because I want to startle the reader (‘and many do’). Most editorials in the AMS Notices are diplomatic and bland. The world of blogging is not. Anyone who blanches upon reading that sentence will not survive long in the blogosphere.

That joke was stolen from Groucho Marx. “Any five-year old could understand this report. Quick, someone fetch a five-year old child!

Posted by: John Baez on October 1, 2009 8:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I have added a sentence explaining part of the point of this joke. Thanks, Emmanuel! I sometimes forget that not everybody thinks exactly the way I do.

Posted by: John Baez on October 1, 2009 10:09 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Okay, here’s the version I’ll send to Steven Krantz.

Thanks to everyone for their help! It was a truly collaborative project, and I hope the AMS includes the link that’ll let people see that.

Posted by: John Baez on October 2, 2009 1:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Hi, If I understand you correctly, there will be some links on the nLab to blogging websites, which is still a work in progress. I have a tip for all those who read blogs for pure wizards using Firefox. Some of these blogs have such poor contrast that one can hardly read the text. Here is an example of a blog where the text is so faint that it started to give me eye strain. Here is the solution. Took me 15 seconds to add this script and with a couple of taps of ‘Ctrl+’ the transformation was remarkably good. I mean the before and after screenshots were worth 2,000 words because if one has never encountered a blog with horrible contrast the evil optic impact is hard to imagine! The moral is that mathematicians who create blogs should pay attention to their contrasts and test on different browsers.

Posted by: Stephen Harris on October 2, 2009 7:04 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Stephen wrote:

If I understand you correctly, there will be some links on the nLab to blogging websites…

There already are, and you can see them here. If you want to improve them, just go to the bottom of the page and click ‘Edit’.

Some of these blogs have such poor contrast that one can hardly read the text. Here is an example of a blog where the text is so faint that it started to give me eye strain.

Yuck!

Some people have no sense of visual design. What is the advantage of writing with light gray on white instead of black on white? And some people have no sense of the fact that as people get older, their eyesight worsens.

I think I’ll post a comment on that blog begging them to fix it. It’s great that you figured out a way to improve it yourself, but why make ones readers work to see what the heck you’re writing?

Darn… you have to ‘log in’ to post a comment on that blog. Too much work for me. Oh well — if they want to make it hard to read and hard to post comments, that’s their business.

Posted by: John Baez on October 4, 2009 6:19 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I put it under Other Resources. You know they have “LaTeX for the Logician” and
“Latex for Linguists” so I’m looking around for “Latex for Category Theorists”.

Posted by: Stephen Harris on October 4, 2009 3:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

JB: you have to ‘log in’ to post a comment on that blog. Too much work for me. Oh well — if they want to make it hard to read and hard to post comments, that’s their business.

I had precisely the same observation about and reaction to the n-Forum (but didn’t write about it…)

Posted by: Arnold Neumaier on October 9, 2009 2:22 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

The n-forum has a specific purpose: to make it easy to discuss matters relevant to the n-lab. Whilst there can be wisdom from the crowd, frankly there’s so much junk that figuring out what is worth knowing from all the spam isn’t worth the hassle. So we put a mild requirement on users of the forum so that when someone comments we know that they are committed enough to the n-lab and the whole project that they are prepared to fill in a form and click on a link. If someone isn’t prepared to do that, then I’m afraid that I don’t consider that their opinion on the n-lab matters enough to be worth hearing. Given that about half the non-latest-changes posts are thinly veiled requests for me to do something, I’d like to know that the person doing the asking is genuinely concerned with the n-lab project before I spend time doing what they’ve asked.

Since the n-forum now has another role, namely that of recording latest changes on the n-lab, and since we wish to make it as easy as possible to edit the n-lab (which is different to having an opinion on matters such as how it should be run), we have relaxed the condition that users log in to merely solving a recaptcha. This has so-far protected us from spam.

Perhaps that is still too much like hard work.

The broader point being that blogs and forums are completely different environments and so require different approaches to identification. I don’t much care who says what on the cafe, it’s helpful for distinguishing the signal from the noise, but there’s so much noise that I have to be more discerning than just knowing who said what. On the forum, so far there isn’t too much noise and knowing who said what is still a reliable filter of whether or not it’s worth reading what they said.

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on October 9, 2009 3:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

So we put a mild requirement on users of the forum so that when someone comments we know that they are committed enough to the n-lab and the whole project that they are prepared to fill in a form and click on a link.

You mean that you put a mild requirement on users.

We didn't have a Forum until you set one up for us, so I'm grateful for it and willing to sign in to use it if you want me to.

we have relaxed the condition that users log in to merely solving a recaptcha. This has so-far protected us from spam.

I don't know if spambots are more attracted to a Vanilla forum than to an Instiki wiki, but the Lab has no recaptcha protection, and it has so far attracted a grand total of one spam ad.

Posted by: Toby Bartels on October 10, 2009 12:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

You’ve obviously never encountered the Dreaded Spam Hurler that operates on the n-lab. For reasons known only to itself, it hurls requests into the night where they languish, lost and alone until they can be found and restored to their rightful owners.

Or, less prosaically, the n-lab has a spam filter that blocks IPs according to a blacklist. A few people (including Urs) have been blocked that way. Obviously you’ve yet to encounter it. The n-forum doesn’t have that protection, which is one reason to use accounts.

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on October 10, 2009 7:52 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Actually, I have encountered the spam filter, but I don't recall that it blocked my IP.

But I take your point, that the Forum has no spam filter, so you use ReCaptcha instead.

Posted by: Toby Bartels on October 10, 2009 10:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

AS: we have relaxed the condition that users log in to merely solving a recaptcha.

I hadn’t seen that when I tried to view the recent changes on the n-lab.

I had reported the problem just because something similar was mentioned already by JB, and since I think it is good to have the problems diagnosed even if there is no immediate cure.

Posted by: Arnold Neumaier on October 11, 2009 11:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I think it’s reasonable to demand that people log in to the nn-Forum, since it’s not really supposed to be a public discussion.

But in practice what happened is this: I put off getting a password for a long time, and then finally I got one, and then I quickly lost it. So, I’ve posted a total of either 0 or 1 comments there. I forget which. And I’m so busy that whenever I momentarily have an urge to say something there, the urge passes before I find that bloody password. There’s always something that’s either more urgent to do, or more fun.

Posted by: John Baez on October 9, 2009 7:01 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

As a special service (and since I’m feeling a bit guilty about the tone of my earlier comment), I’ve sent you instructions on how to reset your password.

You can always get your browser to remember your password, and if you select ‘remember me’ then the forum’ll set a cookie or two which will enable you to stay logged in.

We really do try to make it easy for you!

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on October 9, 2009 9:36 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

A discussion on n-categories and stratified spaces has been developed into a paper by Jonathan Woolf.

What did you have in mind here – The fundamental category of a stratified space?

About that paper I remarked:

Remember that this is a different approach from John’s fundamental category with duals, since here “paths never cross strata, only leave them”.

If you recall, Jonathan had told us about his project. Does your statement not give the impression that his paper derived more from our discussions than it actually did?

Posted by: David Corfield on October 2, 2009 9:20 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

David wrote:

What did you have in mind here – The fundamental category of a stratified space?

No, I’m talking about a new paper by Jonathan Woolf, called “Notes on transversal homotopy theory”. It’s an outgrowth of our discussions here about the ‘fundamental nn-category with duals’ of a stratified space. You’ll like it! It should appear on the arXiv pretty soon.

Posted by: John Baez on October 2, 2009 11:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Excellent!

Posted by: David Corfield on October 2, 2009 11:42 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

And here it is – Transversal homotopy theory:

Abstract: Implementing an idea due to John Baez and James Dolan we define new invariants of Whitney stratified manifolds by considering the homotopy theory of smooth transversal maps. To each Whitney stratified manifold we assign transversal homotopy monoids, one for each natural number. The assignment is functorial for a natural class of maps which we call stratified normal submersions. When the stratification is trivial the transversal homotopy monoids are isomorphic to the usual homotopy groups. We compute some simple examples and explore the elementary properties of these invariants. We also assign ‘higher invariants’, the transversal homotopy categories, to each Whitney stratified manifold. These have a rich structure; they are rigid monoidal categories for n>1n \gt 1 and ribbon categories for n>2n \gt 2. As an example we show that the transversal homotopy categories of a sphere, stratified by a point and its complement, are equivalent to categories of framed tangles.

Posted by: David Corfield on October 20, 2009 2:01 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I would like to ask a more general question: why do mathematicians and other abstract researchers need the academic system at all? It seems to me that with blogs, wikis and other collaborative technologies researchers can “route around” the archaic brick and mortar academic model entirely. The key is finding a way to distribute funds to researchers globally, rather than through university channels. For example I’m looking for some applied research to get involved in as preparation for entering a PhD program, and I see no reason to limit myself to the projects at my current university. The current system is absurdly inflexible and local. Some kind of “Global Research Network” or “Netversity” needs to be established to make better use of the net-centric paradigm, so that researchers can be matched to projects and people with similar interests worldwide.

Posted by: Sean Taylor on November 9, 2009 8:17 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

I would like to ask a more general question: why do mathematicians and other abstract researchers need the academic system at all?

I can think of three reasons, all of which could be overcome.

  1. Many (most?) mathematicians simply wouldn't be comfortable working in any framework other than what they're used to. This reason will go away with time.
  2. As you indicated, funding. The current funding system is probably not very good, but it's hard for people to break out of it, even if (pace 1) they want to.
  3. Besides day-to-day bread and butter, academic institutions also provide meeting places. While this is much less important than it used to be, it still helps even me (who am unaffected by 1 and 2) to interact with physically present people.
Posted by: Toby Bartels on November 9, 2009 9:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Here is another one: The established academic system provides a way to distribute authority and reputation. A Ph.D. from a very prestigious university will help you to get on with your career, while a Ph.D. from some obscure unkown instituton from a small city in (enter the name of a country you sincerely dislike for whatever reasons) could be the end of it.
It’s sad, but it’s true, and since entering a Ph.D. program is a critical step in your career, it would be unfair to downplay this fact.
Mathematicians and the mathematical community as a whole take pride in the fact that they usually don’t give much about this “authority” or “reputation” thing, which may be true, especially if you compare them to others - but that does not mean that it is completly irrelevant.

And it won’t change soon, because it is a necessity:
As a researcher you have to choose every day which papers you should read, with whom you should interact and who and what should be ignored. And you can’t read and understand everything and make up your mind about everything and everyone yourself.
Let’s say you are a bit like me: It takes me about 2 weeks fulltime on the average to understand a paper from the arXiv that is of interest to my field, but there is a new one almost every day! I have to choose which ones I should ignore. So I ask myself two questions: Is the abstract interesting? Is the author a big shot that I know? Most of the time the paper gets a score that is based fifty to fifty on the answers to these questions.

Maybe we can build a global online community with it’s own system to bestow authority and reputation to it’s members, but I doubt that it will happen during our lifetimes, and I very much doubt that it will be anything like what mathoverflow does (or rather the framework they use).

Posted by: Tim vB on November 10, 2009 8:10 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Certainly the ability to just go and talk to people about stuff, or hear experts speak, speeds up research like nothing else. I am somewhat envious (well, a lot envious) of my northern hemisphere collegues and the networking opportunities. For me, I had to try and find AU$2600 for flights (let along all other costs) to get to a small conference at which I had a talk accepted. As a student that can’t happen too many times before things dry up. Even to go to my ‘local’ category theory seminar is $300-$400 in flights, or a 18 hour drive. Despite the fantastic facility here and at the nLab, I’m not exactly a real-time participant.

Even with dreams of a world-wide distributed academic system, one needs collaborators in one’s own (sub)field in close timezones for anything like the speed of face-to-face interaction.

Posted by: David Roberts on November 10, 2009 1:52 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Sometimes, David, I use modern conveniences like skype and virtual whiteboards. It’s not as good as face-to-face, but it’s faster than interaction through things like the nLab. One typical difficulty is agreeing on a time, but that’s not insurmountable.

Posted by: Todd Trimble on November 10, 2009 3:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

True. I know I’m behind the times on technology. My point was that academia as it currently stands helps slow-coaches like me get work done, at least until we can catch up to the present.

I should sit down and plot when various people around the world are awake when I am so’s I can know who’s available. Although I notice that Urs is awake till 2-3 am European time sometimes, about when I’m getting settled into work for the day :)

Posted by: David Roberts on November 10, 2009 11:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

My opinion piece about math blogging has now appeared in the March 2010 issue of the AMS Notices.

It includes a link to the nnLab list of online resources. People are starting to send me emails about this opinion piece, so if anyone feels like improving that nnLab page, now would be a great time!

Posted by: John Baez on February 26, 2010 8:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

Thanks. I have added a sentence to the beginning and a pointer to a famous piece on math blogging, so that it becomes clearer what the entry is about.

Who had the idea to call this page “Online Resources”? That’s a peculiarly unspecific name for a page that lists essentially just blogs and just about math.

I don’t want to change the title now that it has appeared in print, but I changed the toc-title.

[John Baez: Thanks. Perhaps you can blame Eric Forgy for the title of this page. I’m not sure.]

Posted by: Urs Schreiber on February 26, 2010 9:22 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

If anyone can think of a better name, we can always rename the page. The beauty of redirects is that “Online Resources” can always be made to point to this page no matter what its name is.

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on March 2, 2010 1:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: What Do Mathematicians Need to Know About Blogging? II

If anyone can think of a better name, we can always rename the page. The beauty of redirects is that “Online Resources” can always be made to point to this page no matter what its name is.

I know. But since now the title of the the page appeared in print I was imagining that chances are that somebody who reads the article on paper afterwards goes online and googles “nLab online resources” instead of remembering the url.

Not a big deal, in any case. I would suggest that eventually we rename the page to something more accuratively descriptive and keep “Online resources” for a more top-level page that truly aims to collect links to online resources on, I suppose, math, physics and philosophy, right?

But until we have material to go there, the page can just as well retain its current name for a while.

Posted by: Urs Schreiber on March 2, 2010 2:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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