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I have noticed the same mindset.
But it's a mindset that vitiates self-reflection and critical discussion, so I don't see much to do about it until the mathematical tastes of the assembled company broaden and mature in their own good time.
I read the question three times and was not able to see what he was asking.
@Jon: you are quite good at finding round-about ways of being patronizing! :)
Mathematicians are like porn, so the problem does not really exist.
Sadly I don't know any mathematicians into signal processing! (I know, I need to get out more.) This seems like an excellent opportunity for a mathoverflow regular who happens to have a friend who knows about signal processing to write them an email: "Hey, a question came up on mathoverflow that's out of the familiar territory of most of the regulars. Perhaps you could jump in and help?" Think of questions like this as chances to do some recruiting.
I do agree with Steve et al, though, that the question may be inappropriate on the grounds that
1) it's quite hard to work out what the asker actually wants (I admit to being totally lost, but I'm pretty confident that the asker does want something specific, but is assuming context that I don't have.)
2) quite possibly even if he were clearer the mathoverflow population might not be able to help.
@Jon A: With all due respect, what qualifies you to speculate on the quality and extent of my self-reflection, and the extent to which that has been guided or vitiated by my oh-so-boring training in the unvisionary and uncool mathematical establishment?
Can I also comment that, perhaps unlike some, I don't see it as my duty to go out of my way to sift questions on MO for the gold that might lie therein. MO, for me, is not a site where I am partaking in teaching duties, for the simple reason that it's not a good medium/forum IMHO for the diagnostic component that's critical for teaching. Hence some of my recent grumbly remarks about stone soup - it's not that the questions don't have potential interest, but that I'm not keen on putting in energy when I don't have some indication of the level I'm supposed to pitch at, or at how much the questioner wants before going off on his or her own to have a go soi-meme.
That said, I think Adrian's original comments at the top of this thread are salutary and worth mulling over. For what it's worth, I fought back an initial irritable impulse to down vote the question he refers to, thinking I'd have a look later to see if other people on MO were more attuned to the underlying mathematics and could give pointers.
I'm kind of with Theo here. I feel like I often see users leaving comments on posts saying "This is not appropriate for MO," and I don't think this is very productive behavior. If you think a post is inappropriate, downvote it, flag it for moderator attention, or if you have enough rep, vote to close it. If you have a point which might help the poster, by all means, make it (in the case of that question, I'm pretty tempted to say "I can't figure out what you are asking. Which "particular problem" do you need help with? It would be really helpful if you highlighted a one sentence version of your question."), but otherwise, what are you achieving?
Now I bet several of you are saying "But, Ben, you're a huge hypocrite; you've left oodles of comments saying questions weren't appropriate." However, I only left those comments when I had just closed the question. We've had problems on a couple of occasions with users being confused about a question being closed if no comment was left about it, so it's been a convention since the very early days of the site that a moderator closing a question should leave a comment explaining why. It's possible that there's a better way of doing things, but there is good logic behind it.
I am also annoyed by people dismissing challenging questions phrased in non-mathematical language. This one is the most extreme example, but I'll also point to this question. You have a finite set of points in R^2. You want to know whether the second coordinate looks like a function of the first, or whether they look independent. Anyone who has ever looked at polling or experimental data has a gut level sense of this; how can we build a statistic that measures that gut level sense?
In the current case, I don't understand the audio terminology. But, as I get it, we have two sound files which are believed to be the same noises, distorted by noise and out of synch. How can we line them up with each other? Anyone with ears can roughly tell when the job has been well done; how we quantify this and optimize it algorithmically?
I don't know the answer to either question. But they certainly strike me as the sort of thing that Von Nuemann or Wiener would have been glad to work on. Among living mathematicians, Tao's blog posts certainly suggests that he thinks about applying analysis to functions coming from real word data. Are there no grad. students being trained in this art? Or have none of them found their way to MO?
My wish is that our current users would (1) vote up and encourage questions which involve interesting mathematics, even if they don't know how to solve them (2) when possible, would help nonmathematical posters clarify their terminology and (3) would not close or downvote questions simply because they don't know how to attack them.
I cast the closing vote on this particular question. One of my reasons was that I thought it was receiving undue votes because of this thread here!
My own view is that MO is primarily an internal tool for professional mathematicians. It is public, but that does not necessarily mean that it is for everyone. Lectures and seminars are often public in that anyone is welcome to come in, but that does not necessarily mean that they are appropriate for everyone to attend. Of course, as it is public we need to think carefully about how to deal with anyone who does find their way in (by mistake) and I hope that we would do so with courtesy.
I think that there probably is a place for an interface between non-mathematicians and mathematicians. MO isn't it, maybe "Art of Problem Solving" is - I don't know, I haven't looked at those sites. Perhaps more of us should hang out on those sites and answer questions there. If there isn't something appropriate, maybe someone should start a sister site to MO - and then there should be the ability to move questions between the two as called for.
So I'm not particularly bothered about providing "mathematical support" for non-mathematicians here, just as I don't expect all the official documents in Norway to be translated into English for my benefit - I do my best to understand and when I find I need help then I go and ask someone who owes me a favour. To continue the analogy, when I go to a class for learning Norwegian, then I expect the instructor to ensure that I understand what's going on - but that requires a lot more work on behalf of the instructor than if he/she were talking to native Norwegians.
When I do encounter borderline questions on MO then I try to be helpful, within the stricture that if it takes more than a few seconds then it's counterproductive - I'll get fed up of MO and leave altogether. So answering a question on the "size" of the skeleton of the category of groups was okay, but trying to figure out what the question actually is in one on the probability of vectors being linearly independent isn't.
In addition, closing a question doesn't mean "Go away and never darken our doors again.". I know that many think it sends that message, but it shouldn't. It says, "This isn't the right place for this question.". That could be because the question isn't well-formulated, but it could just be that the person is going to get a better answer (and quicker) elsewhere. Closing a question also says to others "This isn't the sort of question that's likely to get answered.".
The moderators on MathOverflow are far too aggressive with closing threads. There are plenty of good reasons to close a question (e.g., calculus homework help), yet people here frequently close questions because they find them "mathematically uninteresting" (e.g. the signal processing thread mentioned above). You folks are missing an obvious point about web forums:
Uninteresting questions naturally fall off the main page as new and more interesting ones take their place.
Right now, the last question on the front page was updated 19h ago. If the MathOverflow population can't help out with a question, then within one day it will be gone and nobody will look at it.
@Pete said, "I don't think that complaning about elitism or bias is the way to get more applied math onto our site. But it's not clear what the answer is: how should we do it?"
First, by not closing questions of an applied math flavor! Consider the following hypothetical situation: suppose that in six months more applied math people join this forum, one searches for the tag signal-analysis, and answers that question. Wouldn't that be a good thing for this community? Instead, she will find that the question is closed and will get the impression that her kind aren't welcome here.
@Andrew said, "In addition, closing a question doesn't mean 'Go away and never darken our doors again.'"
To you, maybe, but not to everybody. People take downvotes and closed questions personally---negative feedback sucks. You can be dismissive and say that people should have thicker skin, or you can try to find a more constructive way to deal with questions you don't find agreeable. If you feel that "the person is going to get a better answer (and quicker) elsewhere," then make a comment to that effect and move on to another question.
@Yemon said, "I don't see it as my duty to go out of my way to sift questions on MO for the gold that might lie therein."
Nobody's twisting your arm to make you look at every question! I count about 50 questions on the main page, and only about 5 that I'm interested in right now. If you don't like a question, ignore it; if enough people feel this way it will be gone soon enough.
@Steve said, "A notional "EEoverflow" would have been a much place for such a question."
Perhaps. But there's not an EEoverflow, and I'm sure that one poster wasn't going to go through all the trouble to build one just to ask that question. MathOverflow is here. It's big, it's popular, and it's robust. I agree that it should be for "research mathematicians," but that's an awfully big tent and we shouldn't be so quick to exclude people from it.
+1 to Tom LaGatta. A question which is ignored drops off the main page in a day. This has its bad points, but one of the good points is that nothing needs to be done to keep a dull question from hogging screen real-estate. It makes more sense to focus on voting up questions which interest you, as they may otherwise go away before an expert sees them.
If a question is not closed, then the community user might bump it to the top one day..
However, I should also clarify that I am of the view that some question are closed too hastily. For instance, I am still remembering my poor closed question here ..
@TomLaGatta: I suspect we may have differing viewpoints, as well as opinions; that's fine by me. However, in replying to me you seem to think that I am complaining about seeing such questions. I'm not. Your suggestion of ignoring questions is exactly what I do; the same way I largely ignore all the algebraic geometry questions, since they are outside my competence, connaissance, or in many cases the amount of interest I have left over after all the things in life that are of greater interest and worth than mathematics.
What I was objecting to was the condescending tone of some commentary, or at least my (mis?)perceptions of it; and the statement of mine which you quote was merely my attempt to explain my POV, and explain why I hadn't offered any constructive comment on the original question. I am not claiming everyone should espouse it; my apologies if it came across that way. FWIW, I did ignore the question that occasioned this comment thread; I'm commenting here on the meta-issue, not so much the question itself.
For what it's worth, I agree with much of what Andrew Stacey said earlier. I have worked on a help-desk centre for non-mathematics students, so I agree that it's important and valuable to interact outside the mathematical academic community. Like Andrew, I personally do not see MO as part of that. On a purely subjective - rather than prescriptive - basis, I'd prefer to see MO remain largely a service by the maths+stats academic community for the maths+stats academic community.
I also admit to getting prematurely cross with questions which merely present confusion or zeal, without context or detail that I can work with. (Again, one reason I didn't downvote the question Adrian originally referred to, was that the detail and context made it clear that the questioner had thought hard about the problem and what he or she wanted to ask.) Part of being a good student is asking questions well, irrespective of the topic.
By the way: let none of this give the impression that I don't respect the efforts and skills of those who can give good answers to such questions. It's not something I can do well without one-to-one contact, which is why I'm not so motivated to do it on MO.
I just want to echo Ben's comment above, because it was an excellent point that people don't seem to have picked up on in the rest of the thread.
If you think a question on mathoverflow is inappropriate:
1) vote to close
2) if you don't have sufficient reputation, flag
3) according to personal preference and politics, downvote.
In particular, there's no 4), leave a nasty comment. Commenting that the question is inappropriate is very often a bad idea. You should always think twice before doing so, and absolutely never do this without first flagging for moderator attention. I think you should only leave such a comment if you think it constitutes constructive communication with the asker of the question. If you just want to get the question closed, either vote to close, or flag, but don't complain in the comment thread. We check the flags often, and I think experience shows that the moderators are slightly less likely to provoke anger than the average leaver of a "this is inappropriate" comment. :-)
And of course, remember Ben's other point: if you're the final closing vote, leave a comment explaining why the question was closed, as nicely as possible!
@Scott: I tend to leave a comment when I'm voting to close whether or not I'm the last one (partly to explain to others with enough rep why I'm voting to close). Would you prefer it if I didn't do that?
@David: The basic problem with this is that they just keep on coming. Of course, any one question will sink without trace, but if people see questions like What does T mean in this vector notation? getting answers, then they'll keep asking them and that will mean that MO becomes effectively useless (for me). There's more of them than of us and by being too welcoming, we risk being overwhelmed.
@Tom: The same goes for your point on that. On your other points, I wouldn't have classified this question as "applied maths". I wouldn't vote to close an "applied maths" question providing I thought that the maths involved would interest an applied mathematician. I'd just ignore such a question. Your scenario about an applied mathematician coming along in 6 months time doesn't work: the person who asked that question wanted an answer now and if they don't get a solution for 6 months then I suspect that they won't be interested in an answer any more. MO is a short-term system.
As for the thick skin comment, I'm sorry but this is academia. To survive here, one has to get used to feeling stupid about a dozen times a day. It's how we progress. I've lost count of the number of times I've felt ignorant, that all my Great Theorems are basically trivial, that even the ones I do think are worth something seem to always get ignored, but then along comes something that I do understand and it all goes away again. It's a piece of advice I remember very clearly from my supervisor: after finding (and then fixing) a hole in my thesis, I remarked "I hope I never feel like that again" whereupon he said something like "Get used to it! You'll feel that again, and again, and again.". MO is a bit different, it's public, and it's over the internet, so we do need to be a little more careful than we would be in daily life, but nonetheless, the voting and closing mechanism is part of the feedback loop that keeps MO working. I wouldn't change that.
But please note that I used the word "courteously" in my original answer. There is, as Scott reminded us, no excuse for leaving a nasty comment - even to someone you know well from outside MO.
@Harry: in answer to your first question, in general - and in teaching - it most certainly does matter. (Rota's Indiscrete Thoughts are, as so often, worth reading on this even if one finds them more provocative than profound.) However, on MO, I'm uncertain as to what balance we should seek to strike. What I would say is that I am OK with the idea that the onus is on the questioner more than on the respondents, but that this is a preference not a prescription.
Echoing other people, thanks to @Scott for his suggestions, and I too will try to be more constructive and courteous.
@Sheldon: the rason given by the software is, I guess, a majority vote... My reason to close it was that it was not a real question, in so far as I could not see what was being asked.
@Yemon, my apologies for misconstruing what you meant. Thanks for further clarifying. Thank you also for the suggestion of Indiscrete Thoughts, I'm looking forward to reading it.
@Andrew, you said, "Of course, any one question will sink without trace, but if people see questions like What does T mean in this vector notation? getting answers."
I absolutely agree that those types of simplistic/homework questions should be closed. My issue is with the more complex ones, like the signal processing question.
About feeling stupid because of academia: I agree. The material is hard, and always feeling stupid is just part of the game. But, like you pointed out, the key is being courteous. If one downvotes or closes a question, he or she should give some constructive feedback; otherwise, it can seem too much like sniping from the sidelines.
@Andrew, If you think it's not already clear from comments that got there before you why you would be voting to close, making a comment is a good idea, but not a nasty comment. But lots of the people making these comments aren't voting to close.
@Pete, Keep in mind that we don't have a real policy on when exactly to leave comments. We're figuring this stuff out as we go along. When the site started, we were concerned about people writing too many HW questions; we weren't concerned about individual users being overzealous about telling people their questions were being inappropriate. The point I was make, at least, is that the distinction should be between constructive and unconstructive comments. Comments that help the user understand what is going on or help them improve their questions are constructive. Comments that say "I, random MO user, don't think your question is appropriate" and nothing else, are not constructive. SE has a mechanism for expressing that sentiment, and it is called "downvoting."
When voting to close and/or downvoting a question, I try to leave a comment at the very least referring the asker to the FAQ for her to get a list of alternate sites, and I cannot see a sensible way to start those comments but with "This question is not appropriate for MO..." for that is one of the very few reasons I can find that justify either closing or downvoting a question. I also downvote MO-appropriate questions which are in my opinion very badly asked, just as I downvote answers which I think are very badly answered, but I do this much less.
Other reasons mentioned in this thread (like that the mathoverflow population might not be able to help, or that the question is 'applied', say) seem to me quite irrelevant to the issue. Most of the questions that I think are not appropriate for the site, as far as I understand it, would be able to be answered by essentially all people here, and apart from the isolated youngling I doubt anyone seriously thinks applied math is out of place here (there is no need to go all the way to von Neumann or Wiener to show that kind of (sane!) attitude I'd like to think most of us have on this...)
To clarify my earlier comment:
If you vote to close, I don't have a strong opinion about whether or not you comment on why you're voting to close. However, if you're the vote that actually closes the question, and no one has left a comment explaining why the question is being closed, then you should leave such a comment.
In an ideal world, I think only the last vote to close would leave a comment, but it's a pretty minor matter.
But, Scott, questions may well be salvageable!
If only the last voter leaves a comment, including a micro-explanation as to why the question is about to be closed, and ideally (but I do not believe there is any duty 'to go out of [our] way to sift questions on MO for the gold that might lie therein', as Yemon puts it) a hint as to how to improve it, then the questioner has to go through the extra bureaucracy of requesting the question be reopened while she might simply have fixed it as soon as the problem was explained.
Metaphorically speaking, 80% of the way between an algebraist and an analyst is a much shorter distance than 80% of the way between an engineer and a mathematician. (Not that I don't agree with you.)
@Douglas. It could also be because MO is very active during part of the day, and quiet during the rest. This is because a large part of the people here, and certainly most (all?) of the moderators are in America. So a question asked at a certain time will maybe go unnoticed by the moderators for a while, and then get closed when moderators come back online later. This sort of thing should even itself out when more people get the power to close. I don't know if this is the reason in the case you point out, but it could be.