This thread is opened for questions addressed to (all) the candidates in the December 2010 moderator election.

If questions are kept simple enough they can be answered fully in the comments, and doing so would reduce the tendency for pre-election voting on the candidates rather than their comments. This thread is NOT meant as a candidates' debate or a pre-election poll but a way of eliciting candidates' views on matters relevant to the site that arise from their nomination statements or discussions prior to the election process.

Naturally, candidates (and non-candidates) are as free to contribute or not as in all other threads on this site, no candidate is obligated to spend time answering any question, and (in my opinion) not answering should not count against any candidate. The opportunity to clarify views of moderators and users about site management would be of value even if the number of candidates is no larger than the number of moderator positions. [update: there are now 5 nominees for 3 spots].

[a suggestion: if you want to both ask a question and express opinions about the subject of the question (e.g, campaigning for a particular answer, or explaining why the question is important), post the additional non-question material only in the comments or in a separate meta thread. This way candidates' answers are a direct reflection of their thoughts on the question itself, and readers interested mainly in what the candidates think about the questions are not forced to read the non-Q&A material by non-candidates if they do not wish to. It also avoids the asymmetry of an unlimited-length opinion statement that can only be answered in 500-char comments.]

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Hi, I joined the race (so edited the number of nominees above). Can people help vote-up my comments answering the questions posed? A couple are now hidden behind the fold due to the content of the question by Pete Clark. –  Willie Wong Dec 6 '10 at 19:46
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I have removed some of my comments to make Willie's more prominent. (The issues here seem to me to indicate that this system of having questions as answers and answers as comments is a bit awkward.) –  Pete L. Clark Dec 7 '10 at 5:59
    
Well, the SE engine is intentionally discussion-unfriendly... –  J. M. Dec 7 '10 at 14:53
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@Pete: it would also work to have separate meta threads, one per question, with candidate answers added as "answers" in the SE sense, and linked from a central aggregator thread (such as this one). The reason for posting an aggregator thread at all was that it creates some degree of organization without precluding any additional Q&A threads. Also, because SE-answers can be both up- and down-voted they would increase the tendency for pre-election voting and might inhibit candidates from completely expressing themselves. Using comments avoids the downvoting, esp. on controversial material. –  T.. Dec 7 '10 at 19:46
    
@Pete: I wasn't actually pointing my finger at you in my comment above :-) But rather at something else that is slightly contentious at the moment (which is why I was being somewhat circumspect in that comment). –  Willie Wong Dec 8 '10 at 10:07

7 Answers 7

Question for Robin Chapman:

If elected as moderator, will you continue hitting return at the end of each line of your comments?

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+1! :D I must say, Robin, that's quite a tic you have... –  J. M. Dec 4 '10 at 12:21
    
When reaching the end of a line, I'll always go on to a new one...... –  Robin Chapman Dec 4 '10 at 18:02
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But if Robin becomes a moderator, he will have the ability to merge his comments together immediately after he has posted them! I'd say that is a win-win situation for everyone. –  Rahul Dec 4 '10 at 19:51
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@Rahul: Actually, everyone has the ability to merge their comments (by editing and deleting) within 5 minutes after they're posted. –  KennyTM Dec 4 '10 at 21:00
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I find it exceedingly curious that this got more upvotes (15 as I'm typing this) than more elaborate questions... :) –  J. M. Dec 5 '10 at 0:25
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This would not be recommended. Any user who intentionally and repeatedly posts incomplete comments, despite multiple email warnings (plus, I might add, the rule of just plain common sense) not to engage in this behavior -- will regretfully cause us to temporarily suspend that user's account. Suspended accounts are ineligible for the "account in good standing" requirement of being a moderator. –  Jeff Atwood Dec 9 '10 at 0:38

My questions:

  1. Would you seek re-election after a certain period of time? (An year/ 6 months).

  2. Is homework allowed? Is there any distinction between school and college level homework?

  3. Would you close questions proactively, or would you rather wait until somebody flags for moderator attention?

  4. Is it okay in meta.SE to object to policies and actions of specific moderators?

Answers

I have added here the candidates's answers for easier visibility. This post is made Community Wiki; people can edit it suitably. If anybody wants to add anything or has ideas for better display styles, please feel most welcome to edit this post.


Akhil Mathew:

  1. Yes, I would seek re-election after (at most) one year.
  2. I would have no objection to homework being asked, though I think it good etiquette that the OP should a) mention (e.g. by tagging) that it is in fact homework and b) explain what she has already done on it. (Also, answerers should try to use Socratic questioning.) Repeated posting of obviously homework questions without motivation should be discouraged. I see no reason to jump on a particular user for asking, say, one or two questions that might appear such though.
  3. I would close (or delete) actual spam (or outright flaming, obscenity, etc.), regardless of whether it is flagged. Other than that, I would prefer to let the community decide to close (or delete) borderline questions (which account for the vast majority of cases).
  4. I would have no objection to pointed criticism of the actions of specific moderators, though it should be kept civil (as has not always happened here, alas). It is difficult to object to a moderator action without at least implicitly criticizing the moderator in question, and I have no problem with that.

Robin Chapman:

  1. See my election statement,
  2. Yes, but I would encourage users to be honest about what they have done already and where the sticking point is,
  3. Yes. To clarify, I would be willing to close and delete questions/answers summarily if they are totally inappropriate for the site.
  4. Yes.

Qiaochu Yuan:

  1. Yes, that would be fine.
  2. Yes. No. I am fine with people asking homework questions as long as they are clear that it is homework, clear about what they have tried, and people try to give them hints without giving complete answers.
  3. Yes (for spam and other questions which obviously don't belong).
  4. Yes.

Willie Wong:

  1. Rather than making any sort of promises here, I would prefer to have the community come to a concensus on terms of a moderator and/or a recall process. I agree in general with periodic elections and definite terms, but would prefer to see this done in an organized way rather than individual moderators on their own initiative.
  2. My stance on homework is essentially identical to Akhil's, but I would like to add the caveat that I will also try to prevent users from abusing Math.SE for purely homework help. I think we are trying to build a sort of community here, and just leeching homework solutions without giving back to the community (by voting, accepting answers, or answering questions) should not be acceptable. Also, in principle there shouldn't be a difference between school or college level work in this regard (though of course the answers may need be written differently).
  3. Only spam, troll, or abusive contents.
  4. Yes. In fact I ask you to do so actively. That's the only way moderators can address the "will of the community".

Timothy Wagner:

  1. Yes.
  2. I am OK with questions about HW. If I percieve a question is likely to be a homework problem, I generally provide hints instead of complete answers. However, I don't think this is the only suitable approach. So I am not opposed to others giving complete solutions. I believe, the ethics of getting online help for HW problems are in the domain of the asker and both hints and complete solutions may end up giving them an unfair advantage (though probably unequally).
  3. I have similar position here to every other candidate. Yes, if it is obviously spam.
  4. Yes. Moderators can err and it would be in the best interest of the site if their actions are liable to constructive criticism.
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1. Yes, I would seek re-election after (at most) one year. 2. I would have no objection to homework being asked, though I think it good etiquette that the OP should a) mention (e.g. by tagging) that it is in fact homework and b) explain what she has already done on it. (Also, answerers should try to use Socratic questioning.) Repeated posting of obviously homework questions without motivation should be discouraged. I see no reason to jump on a particular user for asking, say, one or two questions that might appear such though. –  Akhil Mathew Dec 2 '10 at 22:44
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3. I would close (or delete) actual spam (or outright flaming, obscenity, etc.), regardless of whether it is flagged. Other than that, I would prefer to let the community decide to close (or delete) borderline questions (which account for the vast majority of cases). 4. I would have no objection to pointed criticism of the actions of specific moderators, though it should be kept civil (as has not always happened here, alas). It is difficult to object to a moderator action without at least implicitly criticizing the moderator in question, and I have no problem with that. –  Akhil Mathew Dec 2 '10 at 22:45
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1. see my election statement, 2. yes, but I would encourage users to be honest about what they have done already and where the sticking point is, 3. yes, 4. yes. To clarify, for 3. I would be willing to close and delete questions/answers summarily if they are totally inappropriate for the site. –  Robin Chapman Dec 3 '10 at 7:49
    
I upvoted candidates' answers so they become prominent when this thread eventually gets too long; here we see, unfortunately, that the SE engine is indeed not intended for discussion-y questions. –  J. M. Dec 3 '10 at 9:01
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1. Yes, that would be fine. 2. Yes. No. I am fine with people asking homework questions as long as they are clear that it is homework, clear about what they have tried, and people try to give them hints without giving complete answers. 3. Yes (for spam and other questions which obviously don't belong). 4. Yes. –  Qiaochu Yuan Dec 3 '10 at 16:06
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1. Rather than making any sort of promises here, I would prefer to have the community come to a concensus on terms of a moderator and/or a recall process. I agree in general with periodic elections and definite terms, but would prefer to see this done in an organized way rather than individual moderators on their own initiative. 3. Only spam, troll, or abusive contents. 4. Yes. In fact I ask you to do so actively. That's the only way moderators can address the "will of the community". –  Willie Wong Dec 6 '10 at 19:11
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2. My stance on homework is essentially identical to Akhil's, but I would like to add the caveat that I will also try to prevent users from abusing Math.SE for purely homework help. I think we are trying to build a sort of community here, and just leeching homework solutions without giving back to the community (by voting, accepting answers, or answering questions) should not be acceptable. Also, in principle there shouldn't be a difference between school or college level work in this regard (though of course the answers may need be written differently). –  Willie Wong Dec 6 '10 at 19:15
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1) Yes. 2) I am OK with questions about HW. If I percieve a question is likely to be a homework problem, I generally provide hints instead of complete answers. However, I don't think this is the only suitable approach. So I am not opposed to others giving complete solutions. I believe, the ethics of getting online help for HW problems are in the domain of the asker and both hints and complete solutions may end up giving them an unfair advantage (though probably unequally). 3) I have similar position here to every other candidate. Yes, if it is obviously spam. –  Timothy Wagner Dec 8 '10 at 22:19
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4) Yes. Moderators can err and it would be in the best interest of the site if their actions are liable to constructive criticism. –  Timothy Wagner Dec 8 '10 at 22:20

The question of homework has been discussed quite a few times on this site, but I see very few concrete commitments or useful conclusions from these discussions. Also, the discussion has usually focused on homework questions, which I regard as I much smaller problem than answers to those questions. So let me phrase this post slightly (but only very slightly) more provocatively than what I really feel.

While MO is a wonderful gift to the mathematical community and provides an invaluable service to researchers in mathematics, at the moment I feel that math.SE is actually detrimental to mathematics and frustrates the work of teachers and lecturers. Here is why:

Sites where people could ask general mathematical questions, homework and otherwise, have been around for a while, artofproblemsolving being one of the most successfull ones. But there, in absence of a reward system, people take a much more reasonable approach to answering homework questions: they try to prod the asker in the right direction, always leaving him plenty to think about, and if the poster doesn't report back with his findings and doesn't demonstrate progress, he will not get an answer. In contrast, here people are more than willing to solve homework questions completely, even if they see that an experienced mathematician has already posted a comment with the obvious aim to get the poster to think about the question. I think that this is extremely counterproductive, especially because the answers will be easy to google in the future. People who do this are actively playing against the lecturers and teachers, who often put a lot of effort into coming up with good exercises for their students. At the moment, I feel that this site is doing what AOPS has been doing for a long time - only worse!

So my questions are:

  1. Concretely, what would the candidates do about complete answers to homework questions, if they had a complete mandate not bound to the opinions of the community?

  2. How will the candidates, if elected, seek to establish a concensus in the community about what to do? Starting repeated discussions on meta hasn't led to such a concensus so far.

  3. Once a concensus is reached, how will it be enforced? E.g. suppose that the majority agrees that complete answers to questions should not be given. In the presence of strong incentives of defying this decision - namely reputation - there will be a huge tide of such answers that will have to be stemmed. Besides, not everybody reads meta.

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"Besides, not everybody reads meta." - this cannot be emphasized enough. –  J. M. Dec 3 '10 at 8:59
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@Alex: a big +1 for your question. We haven't had much luck with "the homework discussion" thus far: every time it gets raised, it seems to get diverted in a strange direction. But thank you for putting it as starkly as you did. I agree: for certain undergraduate classes I teach, I could imagine my students coming here asking their homework problems, and in many cases I would be annoyed at the complete answers that are sometimes provided. As you say, the reputation system strongly encourages this. –  Pete L. Clark Dec 3 '10 at 9:42
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The second and third paragraphs of this question are not part of any question to any candidate -- they do not invite any specific information from anyone running for moderator -- but instead tell us one non-candidate's opinion about homework (which for Q&A purpose could have been shortened to the words "(which I oppose)"). Is it possible to migrate those paragraphs to an old or new homework thread? –  T.. Dec 3 '10 at 9:56
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Dear @Alex: My policy would be as follows. I would not punish people for asking, say, one or two questions that look like homework. There are various other reasons that a user might ask such a question (e.g. she might have gotten stuck while doing independent reading, it might have been a loose end in lecture, etc.). So, to be clear, I would not do anything about complete answers to homework-appearing questions. I see no good way to prevent this on a general mathematics website. I would ask users that repeatedly ask obviously homework questions (especially ones with limited motivation) ... –  Akhil Mathew Dec 3 '10 at 13:21
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...to stop, or encourage other regulars to ask such users to stop. I do not think talking extensively about homework is such a bad thing; most of my classes encourage it (and I know I have, at various points, either provided or been provided fairly large hints to my homework) as long as individuals write up their own solutions individually. In general, many homework problems assigned in an introductory class are not difficult to find worked out (in some detail) in other books or online if one wishes. However, my position is primarily based on the impossibility of determining whether a... –  Akhil Mathew Dec 3 '10 at 13:24
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...given question is homework, and what seems to me the undesirability of repeatedly asking posters to justify that their questions are not homework (and they could lie, in any case). On MO, homework questions are clearly below the level of the site and it is not an issue to close them. I do not think the same justification applies here. –  Akhil Mathew Dec 3 '10 at 13:27
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1. What I've already been doing: downvoting and leaving a comment requesting that the user delete the answer. In practice I think there are several easy ways to tell if a question is homework, such as the use of the imperative voice. It is also reasonably easy to tell if the way the OP writes is different from the way the question is written by eliciting a single comment from them. The vast majority of people who are asking homework questions are not going to put in the effort to heavily disguise the fact that they're asking homework questions. –  Qiaochu Yuan Dec 3 '10 at 15:18
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2. This is difficult. There seems to be a genuine divide here, which is roughly along the lines of people who came here from MO and people who came here from other SE sites, regarding whether the purpose of this site is to teach people things or to answer people's questions. I don't think compromise will be easy; perhaps it will be impossible. 3. Assuming a strong consensus really has been reached, there are several heavyhanded ways to enforce it, such as deleting any complete answers. I don't think such measures will be popular. Instead, I suppose I would downvote and leave a... –  Qiaochu Yuan Dec 3 '10 at 15:23
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...comment as before, but also link to whatever meta thread it was where we reached a consensus, or the relevant part of the FAQ (assuming it would have made it into the FAQ by then). –  Qiaochu Yuan Dec 3 '10 at 15:23
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@Alex: my objection is not to your views or their expression, but to campaigning for them within a thread intended to elicit the candidates' views. The other question asked what the candidates think about homework (should it be allowed) without a long speech about whether this is good or bad. I see no reason why you cannot post a link to any long and tendentious articulation of your own views of the kind expressed in the question, so that candidates and users can "opt in" on the 300-word lecture rather than being forced to either circumnavigate it or endure it. –  T.. Dec 3 '10 at 16:44
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@Alex: it's 299 words (wordcounttool.com); the first paragraph also contains personal editorials, such as the dismissive and presumptuous judgement that "I see very few concrete commitments or useful conclusions" in past discussions. Your campaign would be on-point in other threads that users can read or ignore at will, but because users have no choice as to whether the site will be moderated, anyone who cares about the moderation must read the election material. Injecting your opinions here does force it down everyone's throat, loading the questions and biasing candidates' answers. –  T.. Dec 4 '10 at 5:32
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This is a difficult question. Any policy regarding homework will be difficult to enforce consistently. For homework questions I feel the best way to reply is to help the poster to focus his/her attention on the sticking point and to encourage him/her to think through the difficulty there. In the end, the learner has to take repsonsibility for his/her learning; most schools/colleges/universities now have plagiarism policies. It is up to the learner to conform to these or to accept the consequences. –  Robin Chapman Dec 4 '10 at 10:55
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In a perfect world (in my opinion), people seeking homework help will indicate the question as such, people giving answers will provide hints and not give complete answers, and moderators will be given free rein to delete offending questions and answers. However, this is not a perfect world, and it is practically impossible to demand users be honest about whether a question is in the context of homework. In the case of school-level work, it is often more clear-cut, and other users (including moderators) can use their best judgement in this regard. But for college level work the line can get... –  Willie Wong Dec 6 '10 at 19:21
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... murky. Now, to address your individual questions: for (1), the best way I think is to leave a comment requesting users to refrain from such behaviour, and lead by example by only posting hints to homework questions. I don't think (2) is a well-posed question, since moderators have little power beyond moderation, and can hardly demand the community to come to a concensus. The best I can do would be to strongly voice my opinion in this matter and stir up debate. Whether concensus will emerge depends on the community. In the lack of a concensus, I will not do anything to such answers ... –  Willie Wong Dec 6 '10 at 19:25
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...beyond what I can do as a user, namely commenting and down-voting. For (3), I think the purpose of such a discussion would also necessarily include the aftermath of a policy violation. Personally I am in favour of a system where a comment is left requesting deletion of the answer by the user, followed up with forced deletion by the moderator after a specified period of time. But if a concensus were to have formed, the best deterrent would be for users to all vote offending answers down. –  Willie Wong Dec 6 '10 at 19:28

Somewhat tangential:

If elected, would you be more frequent visitors (not necessarily participants) of meta.SO, and be willing canaries should a policy that may affect math.SE be brought up?


What made me ask this question? Given the recent, uhurm, tiff, I'm seeing, I was reminded of the little discussion in the comments to this answer regarding the disabling of the community wiki checkbox for questions.

In particular, I took away from that discussion that "consultation" apparently meant "consultation with meta.SO habitués". Since the moderators will be, more or less, the people to speak for the rest of us to the SE powers that be, I thought of presenting this query.

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More frequent: yes, but frequent: probably not. I have visited meta.SO a grand total of 4 times now, and each was due to a policy link someone else posted on meta.Math.SE. I can promise a presence here, since I will check this meta when I check the main site, but having just taken a look at the rate threads pop up at meta.SO, while I am willing to visit it more often, I don't think I would make an effective canary. –  Willie Wong Dec 8 '10 at 10:12
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If a policy change that may affect math.SE is pointed out to me, it goes without saying that I will advocate on our behalf for the majority view of the community. –  Willie Wong Dec 8 '10 at 10:17
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I have no real interest in meta.SO, so I can't promise to be a frequent visitor. However many things happen there that affect, sometime deleteriously, the environment here in maths.se, so it's important that the moderators collectively keep an eye out. –  Robin Chapman Dec 8 '10 at 14:19
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Yes, I will visit meta.SO more frequently, say once a day. Time constraints will probably make it impossible for me to read every thread that appears there, though. –  Akhil Mathew Dec 8 '10 at 15:16
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To respond to J.M.'s edit, the removal of the CW option from questions is one of the deleterious effects caused by the SO hierarchy. Certainly CW works well in MO and was causing no problems here in M.SE. Looking at the meta.SO thread I cannot see what the perceived problem with CW was. The moderators need to be vigilant regarding potential problems arising from the SO centre. –  Robin Chapman Dec 8 '10 at 15:37
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Currently my meta.SO visits are essentially restricted to redirects from meta.SE but if elected I would visit meta.SO more than I currently do. –  Timothy Wagner Dec 8 '10 at 22:23

Based on what you've seen from the pro-tems, what would you do differently? (Please don't name names or point fingers; I just want to hear if there are things you'll do differently from how the pro-tems handled this site.)

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I would close and delete more posts. Specifically, deliberate spamming and trollery. To be fair, there is presently little of that here compared to MO. Since becoming a 10k user on MO I have realized that the moderators there do a lot of good work, invisible to most users, in squashing some persistent trolls and spammers before most users can see their posts. Fortunately so far on M.SE there has been less need for this, but there has been the occasional post that should have been immediately squashed that has taken hours or days to be dealt with. –  Robin Chapman Dec 5 '10 at 9:20
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As I have already indicated, I would try to keep meta a more open place (and in particular avoid closures except in extreme cases). I would be more willing to consider small suspensions and less willing to consider effective bans. Like Robin, I would also delete spam and trollery (and perform similar janitorial work), but I haven't seen that much of it here as it is (possibly because of the pro-terms). –  Akhil Mathew Dec 5 '10 at 18:55
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I would like to merge a lot of tags. –  Qiaochu Yuan Dec 6 '10 at 18:23
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I've never been too keen on following that whole debate regarding the pro-tems, and honestly, I don't really know what the pro-tems did or did not do. So I cannot answer this question. –  Willie Wong Dec 6 '10 at 19:29
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Essentially similar answer as Willie Wong. I have only been on the site for 4 weeks, so I am not in a position to answer this. –  Timothy Wagner Dec 8 '10 at 22:24

Would you be open to ideas that require moderator support to alleviate the problems with the asymmetrical close/reopen voting process?

(See the earlier version of the question for motivation.)

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Your question has the prior assumption that there are "problems" with the present system. I see no problem –  Robin Chapman Dec 4 '10 at 8:07
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I am open to ideas. But I will have to look at individual proposals, and compare them with the current system, before deciding whether to support them. That said, I am elected moderator, I will not unilaterally close questions beyond those that are obvious spams, or those with clear intent to abuse the system. But given that Math.SE now only has 17 users with voting powers, for the time being I will be willing to close questions after 2 or 3 votes to closure have been committed. Once a larger mass of users reach 3000 rep, I will follow the general policy on MathOverflow... –  Willie Wong Dec 6 '10 at 19:35
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...that moderators try to keep their votes the 4th or 5th votes in closure/re-opening issues except for compelling circumstances. (And if there are such circumstances I will always leave a comment indicating such.) –  Willie Wong Dec 6 '10 at 19:36
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@Willie: I was pleased with everything you wrote here till I saw your above remark that "I will be willing to close questions after 2 or 3 votes". This seems to conflict with your earlier remarks that you would let the community perform the moderation. Could you please elaborate. –  Bill Dubuque Dec 7 '10 at 22:28
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@Bill: please read the previous clause to that. Given that votes to close expire after some time, and currently there are 20 people with voting privileges, I don't think it is realistic to expect a 20% Quorum on every question at the moment for closure. Once we get closer to having 35 (full first user page) with 3000+ rep, I'll leave the decision for closure completely up to the community (modulo the cases of SPAM/abuse). (Apologies for the delay in answering, for some reason the SE software didn't notify me of your comment.) –  Willie Wong Dec 8 '10 at 22:44

Edited version:

Would you consider reviewing the cases of long term suspended users, and possibly lifting the suspension if you are given the authority?

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It's not clear to me whether we'll have the authority to do so, but if so, then yes (after perhaps a few additional discussions with him about his behavior). –  Qiaochu Yuan Dec 4 '10 at 20:10
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-1: This is a pointless question. We/candidates do not have enough information regarding the suspension to even try and answer this. 2c. If you are worried about unwarranted suspensions, please try rephrasing the question. –  Aryabhata Dec 4 '10 at 20:34
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I would consider reducing the suspension. –  Akhil Mathew Dec 5 '10 at 0:19
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There is one "long-term suspended user". I don't have the full story on his suspension, but from the outside an eighteen-month sentence seems a little harsh. However despite his suspension, he has recently been asking and answering questions here. My position is that suspensions should be both proportionate and effective. –  Robin Chapman Dec 5 '10 at 9:17
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Removed the -1 after edit. –  Aryabhata Dec 5 '10 at 18:13
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Even in the edited version of the question I am not certain that moderators should have the authority to retroactively change the suspension policy (especially in view of another [implicit] proposal above for regularly holding elections). If given the authority, I think moderators should be given the option of adopting what they think are sensible suspension policies (my understanding being that some of these discussions here are about specific cases where the punishment seems to not fit the crime). –  Willie Wong Dec 6 '10 at 19:41
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I don't think any ex post facto changes would be appropriate. –  Timothy Wagner Dec 8 '10 at 22:38

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