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Monday, July 12, 2010

How the internet has changed mathematical research

Many years ago I told a science librarian that electronic journals would never replace paper journals. Reading papers on a computer screen was simply too uncomfortable, and printing paper copies simply transferred costs from the library budget to the departmental budget. I was completely wrong. Not only has the advent of laptop computers made reading on computer screens comfortable (now I can read them in bed), but the ubiquity of electronic journals, internet mathematics archives, web course notes, and even Wikipedia has dramatically accelerated the pace of mathematical research and lowered barriers to entering new fields.

Before the internet, whenever I encountered an unfamiliar mathematical concept, I traipsed to the library, pulled books on related topics, and searched though their indices for a discussion of the concept in question. If the concept was too young to be covered in a monograph, I would chase through a maze of references in journals, one paper leading me to another until I mastered the desired concept. Now Google replaces this many hour endeavor with a rapid download of pdf files of relevant materials. Reading the papers might still be time consuming for complicated theoretical constructions, but finding the materials requires vanishingly little time. For a forgotten elementary definition, Wikipedia does the trick.

The advent of the mathematics arxiv led to an explosion of papers, often with results many might deem too insignificant to merit a paper. The downside is clutter on the web. The upside for my work is that with a quick flick of Google, I can find useful mathematical building blocks, which even though not deep, may save me from spending a week or more working out the details myself. Effectively, this makes research more collaborative.

The publication of minor results coupled to a rapidly searchable arxiv has dramatically quickened the pace of research. A researcher can now spend the bulk of his time at the leading edge of discovery (where admittedly the pace of progress often slows again), instead of trudging back and forth from the library.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Republican outpost in hostile territory

My community hosts an arts festival each summer. My county GOP decided to sponsor a booth in this year's festival. These festivals are fun to attend, but the crowds are dominated by long (grey) hair and tie dyed tee shirts. I have always assumed that Republicans constitute a miniscule minority at these events. One of my more indomitable colleagues in the county GOP observed that as the Republicans were outnumbered 3-1 in the county, if we were unwilling to venture into Democratic territory, we might as well give up. I decided to further my political education and convictions by contributing a Sunday morning and afternoon to manning the booth.

As usual, our organization was poor. I arrived at the appointed time with no instructions, only to find an unmanned booth. I found sacks of materials inside the booth and dug through them looking for materials to place on our table. Our materials were a bit skimpy. Many people are drawn to the booths seeking stickers and buttons. Lesson 1: Keep an ample supply of goodies on hand. Shortly after my co worker arrived (30 minutes late), a representative of the festival visited to warn us that we were not allowed to give water to passers by; we were only allowed to offer information. We would be expelled if we left our booth to offer information. Apparently we had violated both rules on the preceding day. I assume that the Democrats were bound by similar restrictions but would like to be able to confirm that.

For most of the day my coworkers were two judicial candidates, one running for the state court of appeals and one for the state supreme court. I asked them if it was difficult campaigning for a nominally nonpartisan office and explaining to voters the differences between their judicial philosophies and that of their opponents. They told me that the main goal of campaigning for nonpartisan office was to establish name recognition. If people were familiar with their names, they would vote for them. They rarely discussed judicial philosophy with voters. They even said that some names were better than other names simply because they appealed to various demographics. We couldn't improve their names; so, we focused on name recognition. We asked all visitors to wear stickers with the judges' names. I was also asked to plaster myself with name stickers and pins. Lesson 2: Name recognition is key.

The visitors to our booth were a heterogeneous group. Some simply wanted to discuss politics and to learn about local races. I enjoyed chatting with these folk. Others wanted to discuss their encounters with local government and to seek help in overcoming governmental obstacles. I happily turned these over to my better informed colleagues. Others simply wanted to collect pens, pins, and stickers. Now I understand that these folk aid the candidates too, especially when we can induce them to display the candidates's names while they are at the festival.

Of course no Republican booth in a sea of aging hippies could escape without encountering a few hecklers. Our first heckler was actually quite polite. My usual slow, careful style of discussion, however, was completely useless in dealing with a hostile audience. Clearly I need a stock of short pithy responses. Lesson 3: Do your homework, and prepare soundbite responses.

Our final heckler was quite abusive. He approached the booth and asked what we thought about "Drill baby, drill," now? What could I say to that given the current tragedy in the Gulf? I simply said that it was a shame that regulations had pushed drilling into such deep water that it was nearly impossible to cap the well. I did not mention Obama's rigid adherence to the Jones Act or other manifestations of the Obama administration's mishandling of the disaster. My answer, even though I neglected to indict the Obama administration, infuriated the visitor. He started flinging f* words at us. I reminded him that there were ladies present and told him not to speak that way in front of them. He departed, flinging a few more f* words at us as he left. The judges appeared to be somewhat bothered by the encounter. They had been worried that the aging hippie would become violent. I had not sensed any incipient violence and thought their worries were unfounded. By the next day the story had grown. By the next meeting of the county Republicans, I expect to hear that I had to wrestle to the ground a drug crazed hippie who was foaming at the mouth and trying to attack the judges. I will disabuse people of the more colorful story - eventually.