Help proofread free textbooks for South African children

I don’t know much about this cause, having just learned about it from Tom Leinster today, but it sounds like a good one and it’s important to get the word out fast.

The Free High School Science Texts project aims to compile free (both in the sense of without cost and the sense of unrestricted by copyright) High School science texts. They have a good chance to get their books used in South African schools, providing a major test ground — if they can do a ton of proofreading this week.

If you are the sort of person who always spots typos in the papers you read, and are happy with LaTeX, read this post and this one and, if you have the time, volunteer to do some proofreading.

After all, it’s one week before classes start. I’m sure we’re all looking for ways to procrastinate

Equivariant cohomology wiki

A few weeks ago, I went to a superb conference at AIM on Localization Techniques in Equivariant Cohomology. A frequent topic at that workshop was the lack of good surveys and references. Results from the 70s were being rediscovered, and no one knew where to start reading.

As a partial solution, the conference organizers have set up a wiki. There is a list of references, particularly on Schubert calculus and related problems, and of open problems. They are keeping editing restricted to selected users, but I imagine many of our readers would make excellent editors. Please take a look and, if you have anything to add, e-mail Rebecca Goldin or Julianna Tymoczko to become an editor.

What’s with locality and subdomain specific British blogs?

A week or so ago, I happened across the London Number Theory Blog. I thought to myself “Huh, that’s an interesting idea; a blog specifically for workers on a particular subject in a particular city. Seems a little funny, but it could have some interesting uses.” Indeed, while there are some points of general interest on there, it does seem largely aimed at people who are participating their study group (which is great! more study groups should have blogs like this).

Then, just today, I found the Edinburgh Mathematical Physics Group blog. And then I started to wonder…one such blog seems like a curiosity, but two starts to feel like a trend. Was this driven by some kind of external event for just a weird coincidence?

Chromatic Homotopy II or how I learned to stop worrying and love LaTeXing in Real Time

I am currently taking course notes for Jacob Lurie’s class on Chromatic Stable Homotopy in real time in Latex. This is not the first time I have taken course notes live and in tex, and when people see it happening they often ask me about it.

I wanted to write an update about Jacob Lurie’s class on Chromatic Stable Homotopy and mention some of exciting and beautiful things happening in that course, but as I started writing this post I found that it was morphing into a sort advice post on how to LaTeX in real time. Since there is obvious appeal, I’ve decided to run with it and collect all the advice, tips, and tricks on how to LaTeX in real time that I’ve gathered from the wild.

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Let’s make language exams useful

Every year, many hundreds of mathematics graduate students take language exams. In most departments, this means that they must demonstrate the ability to translates 2-3 pages of technical writing from French, German or Russian into English, with the use of a dictionary. In my experience, the usual texts are old text books, and the translations are discarded after they are graded.

I think a number of mathematicians have had the idea that all of this effort could be put to better use. Most recently, Kevin Lin just proposed this at mathoverflow.

The idea would be to take an important mathematical work that had never been translated and divide it up into 3 page chunks, across the math departments of the English speaking world. Each chunk would be assigned to 3-5 students. For each chunk, the grader would select the best translation. These would then be stitched together into a single document, producing a terrible rough draft of a translation, that could be a starting point for future editing.

Moreover, we don’t necessarily have to bring in a skilled editor immediately. Put the texts online and parcel out the first pass to volunteers. I am thinking here of a system like Distributed Proofreaders, who has done a superb job taking scans of public domain works and converting them to digital text. In my experience, web 2.0 projects work best when they rely on small inputs from many procrastinating people. And no one procrastinates like a grad student!

The point of this post is to generate discussion of this idea. A few specific questions are below the fold.

UPDATE: For those who are interested in the idea of distributed translation of mathematical texts more generally, Anton Fonarev has volunteered to create a software infrastructure for this purpose. Join the discussion at his weblog.

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New developments in the blnosphere

Let me start out by apologizing for two things, first the horrible pun in the title, and second my absence from the blog for the summer. Between moving twice (once cross-country), graduating, getting set up at a new job, buying furniture, trying to finish some papers, and being academic coordinator at Mathcamp I was pretty swamped. As a result I missed out on some developments in the math blogging.

Frequent commenter Danny Calegari started a blog in May. It pays to occasionally click on the links in comments here as sometimes you’ll find brand new blogs. My mathcamp friend, Matt Kahle, who is a postdoc at Stanford also started a blog. It has a fun mix of some elementary stuff (like the Rubik’s cube) and some of his research (which as an interesting mix of topology, combinatorics, and statistical mechanics, it definitely involves a lot of sending n to infinity in ways that would make my advisor happy). I’ve been meaning to link to both of those since sometime in June but just haven’t gotten around to it (though I did manage to add them both to the blogroll). It’s been that sort of summer, just ask me about my passport. Also, low dimensional topology has become a group blog. I find group blogging a great model both as a reader and blogger because it promotes conversations and allows one to maintain a reasonably updated blog even when someone disappears a whole summer.

Finally, over the summer there was a great conversation about what mathematicians need to know about blogging. Here’s my two cents. One thing incredibly valuable thing about blogging is the opportunity to have discussions and get advice about how to be a mathematician. It’s often hard in real life to have a discussion involving people at many different places in their careers about professional questions. In that spirit, here’s a question I’ve been wrestling with lately. How do you balance your research time between the following three activities: working on problems you basically know how to solve, working on problems you don’t know how to solve but are important problems, and learning new tools. When I was in graduate school I felt like it was pretty easy to balance things because any time I had any idea that was at all worthwhile I just worked on it and when I didn’t, I learned new things. I had few enough research-worthy ideas that it was feasible to think about all of them. Now that I know more I can’t keep doing that because I simply don’t have time to work on all the easy problems that I could solve. So the need comes to prioritize. I was wondering how other people strike this balance.

Is massively collaborative mathematics scalable?

I’ve been watching, though not particularly intently, Tim Gowers’s attempt massively collaborative mathematics. I’m not sure if I’ve looked hard enough to judge, but it certainly looks as though it were quite successful. This of course, answers Tim’s original question “is massively collaborative mathematics possible?” positively, but I still have to wonder if it’s sustainable in the long term. Of course, it never seems smart to bet against the possibilities of the Internet combining disperate contributions into valuable knowledge. Certainly, I would say people have tended to underestimate the possibilities of real advances coming from the technology of wikis and blogs. At the same time, it seems hard to imagine that people will really have the energy and time, not to mention mental organization, to follow several such projects at all closely. One of Tim’s take away lessons from the project seemed to be that it shrank in number of participants faster than he expected. And this was in a collaboration prominently featuring two Fields medalists and promoted on what is probably the world’s most prestigious math blog! It seems more likely that as the number of such projects expands the average number of participants will shrink until most are functionally equivalent of the collaborations we are used to today, just with more efficient coauthor location. By which I mean, the important advance will not be the number of people involved, but rather the identity of them.

Not that the value of efficient coauthor location should be minimized! The broader array of people we can stay in contact with due to the Internet is a huge boon to mathematics. It’s just that I suspect any concern over how we will deal with the allocating credit in a 20 person collaboration is a bit premature, at least outside of exceptional cases.

On the other hand, I’m kind of excited about the possibility of proving myself wrong, but haven’t been able to come up with any good projects. Does anyone wanna do that massively collaboratively?

L’affaire El Naschie

So I know I’m a little late to the party on this, but I couldn’t resist commenting on the strange case of M. el Naschie (I assume that this is just the German transliteration of the name English speakers would be more likely to spell al Nashi). Zoran Škoda brought him up in the comments to a post at the n-Category Cafe, and John Baez did an excellent job exposing the level of intellectual bankruptcy at the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals. The details are better recounted elsewhere, (unfortunately the posts above have been removed. Those interested in following the case can try Richard Poynder’s blog Open and Shut) but in a nutshell, El Naschie published dozens of papers in his own journal (he’s the editor-in-chief) which appear to be of no scientific or mathematical merit (this is my judgment based on excerpts and titles, and also seems to be the consensus of commenters at nCC), which make rather grandiose claims based on rather incoherent numerology. John Baez characterized him as “worse than the Bogdanov brothers,” which is pretty high up in the food chain of physics hoaxes.

But my intent here is not to beat up on El Naschie. He’s already set to retire in shame. The people who really have egg on their face here are those who enabled the man who is for all intents and purposes a crank to run a superficially prestigious-seeming journal. Continue reading

Requests requested

You may have noticed that there’s a new tab up at the top of the page. That’s because I’ve added a new page called Requests where our blog’s readers are encouraged to suggest blogging topics. Of course, we’re not qualified to discourse on everything (and we do try to stay roughly on topic) so we may not be able to do everything, but I’m really curious to see what good suggestions there are out there. Other bloggers should feel free to poach ideas as well, and link in comments there.