Nov 10

A Sidebar On My Willing Exile From Math Overflow

Crap, took WAY too long between posts again. And this is going to have to be a short one because of the lateness of the hour.

Need to do something about that. But between chronic insomnia and a sinus infection, it’s been all I can do to think.

To the main point of this post:The guys at Math Overflow have finally had it with my shenanigans.

After my 5th suspension from the board for…well, to be honest, I’m still not completely sure. According to moderator Ben Webster ( formerly MIT C.L.E. Moore Instructor, now at the University of Oregon-you may also recognize him from his days blogging at The Secret Blogging Seminar ) , the reason was as follows:

Andrew- No one has ever been suspended on MO for the contents of mathematical statements, even if we disagree with them. The issue is your rude comments on other answers; I would call it "bad sportmanship," but MO is not a game. For example "I can't believe this guy puts down a high school slogan and gets 13 points for it and I got downvoted for "Probability is real analysis with the concept of an expectation." " on Michael Lugo's answer.

As far as I'm concerned, this is equivalent to jumping up after a seminar and shouting "You guys are clapping for that? That was a terrible talk!" which I think we can all agree would not be socially acceptable behavior.

Note to the audience: generally the moderators have adopted a policy of not arguing with Andrew on meta, since it just seems to create more drama. In this case I thought it was important to point out that the issue was not Andrew's mathematical statements (which as I said before, we would not suspend people over), but rather his behavior in comments.

Uh, ok, Ben.

My “behavior” ,as he so puts it, was simply being myself. For those who know me, that seems to be more then enough. Despite my best efforts to tone it down for the board, things just deteriorated further and further. At one point, I was emailed and messaged by several of the members telling me-politely but in no uncertain terms-that my antics were making a bad impression on the mathematical community in general and that I was thus endangering my future career and job prospects.

I really don’t like being threatened.

And make no mistake, as nicely as it was delivered, that’s what it was. A threat.

There was a time I’d have told the whole bunch of them to go fuck themselves for openers and go on for several HTML pages about them and their mothers and wives.

But if I had-well, I would have deserved what I got.

Firstly, when you’re dealing with people like Webster, Andy Putnam at Rice University and Pete L.Clark at the University of Georgia-and this drama is all going on in front of frequent posters Terence Tao, Tom Gowers and Richard Stanley (!) - well, it’s pretty obvious you’re not going to win this one.

And it’s more then that. This isn’t MY site, it’s THIERS.

This wasn’t really about right and wrong, it was about me trying to make their site something it’s not because I wanted to be able to say these things in front of professional mathematicians and get their feedback.

But that’s not what MO is for. It’s for research level and academic questions regarding the mathematical community. They set it up, they police it, they make the rules. I was just a guest.

And they decided I was messing up their furniture and would rather I left. That’s entirely within their rights to do.

And contrary to what some people may think, I don’t enjoy offending people. I wasn’t following the rules and I was dead wrong here. No matter how morally indignant I might want to look.

So after this last incident, I left my pride on the floor and reopened shop here, where I can have no rules but my own.

In closing regarding this incident, I wanted to let everyone over at Math Overflow I never intended any offense. I’m a passionate, opinionated guy. I was the proverbial bull in a china shop.
Not that that’s anything new for me. Once again, I want to apologize to everyone there and hope one day I can return.

More importantly,I hope to be posting here at a regular basis as I prepare for my oral qualifying exams in algebra and topology-hopefully,to be taken around Christmas, no later. I want to let everyone there know they are more then welcome to respond here. They are also free to say WHATEVER THEY WANT ABOUT THE POSTS OR ME. The first amendment is very much alive here.

(For as long as the government allows it after Tuesday,of course. More on that later in the week.)

Well,it’s nearly 3 am now, so the planned posted reading list for graduate algebra courses-sadly-is going to have to wait.

But hopefully-not very long at all!


EDIT 11/6/2010: As Terry Tao and another poster commented after the first draft if this post went online, I wasn't fair in my blanket description of those aforementioned comments as all threats. In fact, many were by well intentioned posters who didn't want me blow my career by shooting off my stupid mouth. For those posters, I should and will apologize. They meant well and I shouldn't be lumping them in with the idiots-"trolls" they call them on MO-who emailed me and warned me "they'd fix my career when I apply for jobs." THAT was a threat.But those brave enough to countermand me were very well intentioned.As such,I apologize once again.
See,I'm not above admitting an error. Rare as it is........

8 Responses for ""

  1. Jonas says:

    Hi Andrew L. I read your post, and I just wanted to say that I do not think it is fair to characterize warnings that you may be hurting your career prospects as "threats". I cannot speak for anyone who wrote to you (and I was not one of them), but it sounds to me like sound career advice. It is completely your decision whether or not to heed it. I only feel compelled to comment because it sounds like people went out of their way to give you advice with the best intentions.

  2. Terry says:

    I agree with Jonas. There is an important distinction to make between a "threat" and a "warning". The two look superficially similar, but the former suggests an intent and desire to execute the conclusion of the threat if the conditions triggering it are met. In contrast, a warning is simply stating the nature of reality and conveys no active intention or malice.

    For instance, "If you play in traffic, you could get hit by a car" is a warning, but not a threat. It does not imply that if you do go ahead and play in traffic, that one would actively then drive a car and deliberately try to hit you. It does not even imply that one wishes to see you hit by a car; indeed, it usually implies the exact opposite.

    Andrew, please don't play in traffic.

  3. Andrew L. says:

    Dear Jonas and Terry,
    I say 2 things here.
    First,I want to apologize for my post and I'm going to edit it tomorrow. I recieved a number of messages via email,meta and MO itself. Some were clearly threats and cannot be justified ("Good luck getting into a PHD program,you stupid troll.Maybe you'll get a job mopping floors after we're done with you." I won't identify who emailed that,but it's pretty hard not to take that as a threat.) But some of the messages-especially on meta-were clearly friendly warnings and it was completely unfair of me to lump them all together.You're both dead right. As such,I'll be editing it tomorrow as I said to paint a more accurate picture. And again,I apologize.
    Second,I'm really sorry it ended on MO for me like it did and it was entirely my fault.I think maybe I had too much to prove.I still have a lot to learn-not only about mathematics,but professionalism. So as I said,I'm going to steer clear of it for awhile. I plan to begin research in additive number theory in the spring (that should interest you,Terry).When that research begins to bear fruit,I'll come back and try some posting then. For now,I have to focus on my oral qualifying exams for my MS degree.
    Lastly-I just wanted to let Professor Tao know I'm a huge fan of your work. What's always impressed me the most about your work is that it's clear from your writings that you don't just DO mathematics-as the most talented of us often do in order to maximize output-you put an enormous amount of thought into everything you do and in communicating it to others. I've never witnessed your lectures personally,but if your posts on your blog are any indication,you're an outstanding teacher.This the result of someone who cares a great deal about communicating his work to others in as clear and complete a manner as possible. I'm saying this because I don't think our profession rewards this in its' practictioners nearly enough.When someone is active who does both aspects of mathematics as well as you do-teaching and research-that person should be commended and done so very openly. Keep up the great work.

  4. Franklin? says:

    You may not intend to offend someone, but you do have to think more about whether what you say CAN offend someone.

  5. Deane says:

    Andrew, there's a simple reason why what people said to you cannot be construed as threats. None of them are in any position or have enough power to threaten you. I can't speak of the other emails you received, but my belief is everyone was just trying to offer you helpful advice. If anything read like a threat, it is most likely due to poor wording. In particular, please keep in mind that if any of us is caught sending a threatening email to a student or colleague, that is also very damaging to *our* professional standing and career. I'm tempted to offer even more advice, but I think it best if I resist. I can only offer you my best wishes to you in the future. Sincerely, Deane

  6. Andrew L. says:

    @Deane First off,I wanted to let you know I'd still like to take you up on your offer to meet when it's convienient-if you're still up for it. Things have been crazy between my personal and professional life-you know how it is,I'm sure.
    Second,people don't always act in a rational manner,even educated ones.In any event,I've clarified matters at the blog and made it clear I appreicated the kind advice of those who gave it. I also took responsibility for my problems on MO. As I said-with the exception of informing people of updates at my blog,I'm going to steer clear of it for awhile. I hope posters at MO will be willing to both read and comment on my blog soon.
    Thanks again for all your support,Deane!

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