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(I fear that it is more or less useless to discuss this subject without reference to concrete questions. Abstract discussion will lead to the inevitable conclusion that some of the questions that are redirected to m.se could have probably stayed here, that others had their natural home there, that we should all be civil and exercise our good will, and so on)
I agree with Mariano, it's best to keep things concrete and on a case-by-case basis if we want to make any progress.
I suppose you could easily make a counter-argument: perhaps the only reason why questions appear to be better-answered on MO is because of whose mouth the answer is coming out of? I haven't seen much evidence to support your claim, Charles.
And MO has always been elitist in a certain strict sense. MO is about research mathematics, which basically by definition is a type of elite. There's a criterion, is what I mean.
In that regard, an abstract discussion is kind of pointless.
One example would be Yemon's 'group theory excercise' I guess; asked on math.SE than idling around there until Will Jagy started 'advertising' it here on MO meta and then answered by an MO regular, Noah Snyder if I rememeber right.
+1 Charles Staats for voicing your concern.
In part the field variation may be caused by whether that field has a standard graduate class/textbook/exercises. If something is part of the "standard graduate curriculum" there may be less of a welcome?
Just as another data point (I make no claims that it is representative, but I do agree with Mariano and Ryan that the discussion really needs some specifics)
This question struck me at the time, and still does now, as something where it's not a question of the level being inappropriate, or necessarily being homework, but where more thought should have been put in. Then again, here is another example where the OP should really have just thought harder, but which didn't get redirected to MSE.
In general, I instinctively agree with Benjamin Steinberg's view that "many questions that are "sent" to MSE would probably stand if the OP had given a little background on themselves and the problem (and in particular make clear it is not HW)", but I admit this is based on my impressions and memory rather than an actual count.
I think the threads you bring up more or less correspond to the norm on MO. If the question appears to be a grad-student homework-type problem, especially if it's not well-motivated, it might be closed. If it's a well-motivated question and well-written, it might be answered (in part) in the comments, with a hint to get a person going (and there's varying standards from subject to subject). But such questions tend not to get long answers.
I suspect most people are worried about creating a repository of answers to homework problems, or doing someone's homework, or doing the leg-work that they should be doing, telling them what they should have been reading in their course-book, or should have got out of their homework assignments. If the question does not appear to be from the heart in some sense, there's little initiative to answer it. In that regard, my impression is your first thread seems more like idle curiosity than a real desire to know, but that's just a first-impression bias. I think in part it's because you never said why you want to know the answer to your question.
I apply similar standards when people ask me questions in person. If it's a grad student laying on a couch, barking off idle questions, they'll be ignored unless the question is awesome. If they seem to really have a reason to want to know the answer, if it's clear they've thought about it, with examples and such, then I'll engage them.
There's a phenomenon one notices as one gains seniority, more and more people start to treat you as if you're some walking automated library, with free answers to everything. When answering a question one wants to feel like you're not putting in any more effort into it than the question-asker. Otherwise one may feel like they're not really getting anything out of the answer. So there's a reverse desire to want to see the question-asker sweat a little.
Somewhere in there lies roughly the kernel of the push-back to your assertion that MO is becoming elitist.
Charles, there is a world of difference in the two examples you give. The first is clearly stated and references SE. It is the type of question that a non expert in a subject might ask. You got good responses, I think, even if possibly not the complete answer (which, as far as I know, might not exist) you hoped for.
The second question is a good example of a bad question. The grammar is bad, part of the question is unclear, and the question is an exercise from a book. When this last is pointed out to the OP, the OP acknowledges that he or she knows that! Thanks for pointing it out--I just cast the first vote to close while wondering why mine is the first.
As for Yemon's second example, this is exactly the kind of dumb* question that I (and, I think, most mathematicians) might ask. I have asked much worse ones, at least within threads. It is great that we have MO to help us when we have blind spots.
*Before I get deluged with outrage, let me add, as Yemon knows, that I intend no disrespect to him.
Thanks, Bill. I still maintain that to ask a question, while mentioning the very result needed to solve it is, let's face it, unfortunate if not downright foolish.
Still, one hopes that the effort put into writing a readable question made it even easier to answer effectively.
To follow up on Bill's comment on Charles's examples: I am not competent to judge how easy or difficult that second question is, nor to know if it is a standard exercise which people set students as part of the learning process. What I will say is that it displays a fault which I'm sure all of us have displayed, but which we as researchers ought to grow out of: it doesn't say what the OP is stuck on, or what he or she already knows.
Actually, on reflection, my feeling is that the question is deficient not because "it is an exercise in a book and so should automatically go to MSE", but because it is poorly worded and seems to want "money for nothing", see Ryan Budney's comments above. In a sense I think Charles has a point, in that the question is unlikely to get a good answer on MSE. On the other hand, I don't think it particularly deserves a good answer on MO in its present form.
Or: what Donu Arapura just said.
How are you proposing those questions be handled?
Regarding post number 22 "reviewing my own thoughts..." this is something like the saying "a man with one watch always knows the time precisely, a man with two watches always has doubts." I'm sure there's an expression along those vague lines.
IMO the two forums have a wide overlap and there's really very good mathematical questions that will get a far better response on the StackExchange site than on MO. One of my favourites would be this one: http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/2755/why-can-you-turn-clothing-right-side-out/ also this one: http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/11669/mathematical-difference-between-white-and-black-notes-in-a-piano
I have written uncountably many comments saying all that. Saying it as nicely as I managed.
Isn't all this spelt out clearly in the FAQ? If not, we should strive to make it clearer, possibly pointing to good real examples of questions. But familiarizing oneself with a site, seeing what gets asked, what gets answered —even the average level of grammar and punctuation!— is something that I expect users to do as part of the work of asking a question. Most people would not enter a bar without checking out first what's going on inside... yet we end up coming up with the nth rephrasing of "you will get more luck if you tell us what you have tried".
Suggestions for edits, additions, or other modifications to the faq and how to ask pages are always welcome. Specific suggestions are preferable since it takes a fair amount of time to come up with the right wording, especially when starting from scratch. Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I think most of your concerns are pretty standard and already-voiced, David. For example "I have the impression that, at least here at UMich, grad students feel intimidated to ask questions on MO". Isn't that to be expected? I mean, MO is meant to be something like tea-time. When I would walk up to John Milnor to ask him a question at tea time, I certainly felt intimidated as a grad student. Perhaps I shouldn't have but I did. It's not clear to me it's possible to create a completely non-intimidating environment when you're not only asking experts, but there's essentially no privacy (unless you're anonymous), and on top of that there's an essentially perpetual public record (which does not happen at actual tea time, thankfully).
But I think we're getting off-track by not talking about specifics and instead picking at my comments in isolation. Much of my comments had to do with asking questions in a respectful way, where you do your due-diligence and put together a question that not only shows you really care about an answer, but that you've tried things yourself. The kinds of things we'd pretty much expect of any colleague.
Another example. Neither of these is something I immediately know how to do, because I did not have any "standard comprehensive grad school courses etc". However, questions phrased in this way, like a demand for a Big Mac at a drive-through, really really really really really really get on my wick.
So here is an instance where I might be tempted to vote to close, or to recommend trying elsewhere. I can see why there is a case against doing so, but it isn't the kind of question I want to see on MO.
Is anyone for not closing questions like the one Yemon just linked to?
(That question IMO makes for a good example for the Do Not Do This list...)
David Speyer said above: "* I view graduate students as young researchers. I think they have the maturity to decide for themselves what kind of answer they are looking for. "
This may be true where you are, David, and be true among most of those you knew as a grad student, but at least in the initial stages it is most certainly not always the case. In the less illustrious levels of maths where people like me work, it's not clear to me that people with PhDs whose work I have to read have attained that maturity, perhaps because no one educated them as to how to ask and solve questions.
As Charles surmises, it might be pretty hard to implement (much less enforce) a "policy" for experienced MO users to follow, although we might try to come to some consensus on reasonable guidelines.
They don't come much more clueless or more obnoxious than the homework grubber of Yemon's Exhibit A, and I don't think much effort should be expended on such cases. If there were a bullet point in the FAQ that "blatant requests or demands to do the OP's homework, without reciprocal effort shown by the OP, will be summarily closed" -- or something similar -- then I guess we could point to that. But honestly, that's such a no-brainer that violators are probably lost causes to begin with. (What I really want to do is tell such clueless types to go to hell, and telling them to go to math.se seems an acceptable substitute. (-: )
@Todd: late at night I have a couple of times written appropriate responses to such posters, but, fortunately, have not put them on MO.
Charles, I was actually being a little tongue-in-cheek there. I think maybe you have a point.
I agree strongly with David Speyer's comments.
When I was a second-year graduate student, I struggled for a number of months to understand an exercise on the second page of the book by Ballman-Gromov-Schroeder. The exercise was the most elementary case of the problem I was working on, so my lack of progress was quite frustrating. Eventually I was at a conference and asked a senior mathematician, who informed me that in fact this was a major open problem. (Needless to say, I changed directions.)
If Math Overflow had existed at the time, I hope I could have asked for some hints and, one way or another, broken through the roadblock I had hit. But in the current atmosphere I cannot imagine a graduate student having the courage to ask about an exercise that appears on the second page of a textbook.
There's a specific example I have remembered. I could not find it--I suspect it has been deleted--but at some point after math.SE opened, I noticed a question on mathoverflow about whether a group is isomorphic to its "opposite group." The question was quickly closed, and the user directed to math.SE. Another comment--apparently made after the question was closed--was from some user I recognized (I can't remember who), linking to his "first question" on mathoverflow and talking about "how far mathoverflow has come." The question linked to was the exact same, asked when MO was in its infancy, and had a number of upvotes.
I think it would have been entirely appropriate to close the question as an exact duplicate, but my impression (which I cannot now verify since I can't find the question) was that the question was closed as being "off topic" or some such before it was recognized as an exact duplicate. The impression I took away from this (the closing, the redirection to math.SE, and the comment left afterwards) was that "low-level questions that might have easy answers, even ones that mathematicians might find interesting, are no longer welcome on mathoverflow," and that this was progress. I can understand why the question was closed--the answer was easy and, in retrospect, the first thing someone would try if they had put any serious effort in before asking; whereas the original question was probably asked at a time when mathoverflow had only a few users who were struggling to come up with questions to keep the project going. But the fact remains that the question was closed--quickly--as being too low-level, even though it is the sort of question that mathematicians find interesting.
But there is a key point here. When you leave a comment that a question is inappropriate (and would perhaps be more appropriate on math.SE), or choose to post an answer as a comment, or decide that a question is too easy/basic to be upvoted even though you find it at least marginally interesting (I am certainly guilty of the last), you are not just giving a message to the asker. You are also giving a message to everyone else who looks at this question to get an impression of what sorts of questions are appropriate on mathoverflow--and, in particular, whether their own question(s) at a similar level are likely to be welcomed, tolerated, or closed. I think it is important to consider this second audience; a comment that is entirely appropriate to the asker, may still give the wrong impression to an observer.
Incidentally, I appreciate David Speyer's excellent and well-thought-out post, and I agree with it except to the extent that Ryan Budney's comments are taken out of context. (That last bit is intended to prevent my statement from feeling like an accusation to Ryan; I certainly am not trying to accuse David of anything.)
+1 David. And -1 to the concept of "graduate level material": it's an almost meaningless term.
But the fact remains that the question was closed--quickly--as being too low-level, even though it is the sort of question that mathematicians find interesting.
But the fact remains that the question was closed--quickly--as being too low-level, even though it is the sort of question that mathematicians find interesting.
I'm very sorry to say this, but I don't get why this is the sort of question that mathematicians find interesting. IMO the question was trivial (even for beginners in group theory), and I think the OP (who is a respected member of the MO community) simply wasn't thinking. Why was closing it as off-topic so inappropriate?