Threatening emails from Jeff Atwood

I just received the following threat in private email from Jeff Atwood.

I have no intention of corresponding privately with Mr Atwood, so I reproduce his message here.

Mr Atwood starts with a greeting "Hi Robin". His bogus familiarity is neither deserved nor welcome. He accuses me of leaving multiple comments. I do not leave multiple comments. I write comments one at a time and end by pressing the "add comment" button. Mr Atwood also accuses me of protesting. I presume what Mr Atwood is referring to is the fact that since September the commenting system has been malfunctioning. When one proceeds to a new line the system inputs what one has already entered even though one has not pressed the "add comment" button. This behaviour interferes with my natural and intuitive method for entering text. I did try to change my ways to fit in, but I am a creature of habit and I keep pressing enter without being conscious of it. Moreover this peculiar behaviour is not explained in the math.stackexchange faq, so comes as a total surprise to users.

When I raised this point in meta, I was directed to this thread from which I learnt that this undocumented change in behaviour was deliberate sabotage from the SE hierarchy and the majority opinion is that it is undesirable. So Mr Atwood, please repair this vandalism and ensure that only the "add comment" button submits the comment.

That said, there have been other instances of vandalism from the SE hierarchy, notably the sabotage of the CW system. A questioner can no longer tick the CW box; if he/she wants the thread CW he/she must entreat the moderators; this is a waste of their time.

Also Mr Atwood equates my comments to "noise" and "harm"; this is gratuitous abuse. He also alleges that moderators need to "clean up" after me. There is no need for the moderators to do anything.

I take no pleasure in writing posts like this. All I want to do here is to read and write mathematics. I do find the smooth running of the site suffers from apparently capricious decisions taken far away from math.stackexchange.

Hi Robin,

Please do not intentionally leave multiple comments as a form of protest on http://math.stackexchange.com (or the meta site). Your feelings on this matter have been duly noted; vandalizing the site to prove a point is not helping.

• it creates noise on the site, harming the experience for the community
• it creates needless work for moderators who have to clean up

If you continue to do this, your account will be placed in timed suspension.

Thanks,

Jeff

Added (9/12/2010) I append a further email from Mr Atwood. Note that despite his attempts to moderate his tone, his threats continue. Can I ask Mr Atwood to cease spamming my private email, to fix the self-induced problems with the commenting system, and not to throw around bogus accusations of harm.

Hello,

I apologize if you found my previous email offensive, it was not intended to be offensive. Let me try again.

I have no issues at all with your overall behavior on math.se, the only specific issue I have is with the multiple incomplete comments you've been entering over the last two months or so. I have manually merged all of your comments together, and I documented some of the community reaction to your incomplete comments here:

Threatening emails from Jeff Atwood

Intentionally and repeatedly entering multiple incomplete comments instead of a single complete comment is harmful to the community, and sets a bad example for everyone.

I respectfully ask you to refrain from this behavior in the future, otherwise further action -- including timed suspension -- will be necessary on my part.

Thanks,

Jeff

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Note to Jeff: Robin is one of the more prolific mathematical problemists on the planet. Apart from adding hundreds of highly upvoted answers to the math.SE site, which increases the value of SE for its investors and users, he has just volunteered to perform additional, unpaid, administrative work as moderator. Removing the return-posts-comment function has been a popular request on meta, but "delete gentlemanly English math professors from user list" has not. – T.. Dec 7 '10 at 20:41
@Robin: If typing Sh-RET vs. RET is too hard to learn, then why not simply use the GreaseMonkey script workaround that KennyTM posted in answer to your original question? I'm sure that many users here would be glad to assist you with setting up this workaround. – Bill Dubuque Dec 7 '10 at 22:07
@T.. I respect that Robin knows his stuff, but that should not preclude him from following reasonable, simple community standards such as "please don't litter" – Jeff Atwood Dec 7 '10 at 22:24
@Jeff: see below. Your standard of what is litter is rather narrow, i.e., demanding quality control over trivia (that seems not to harm anyone) while being totally OK with failure on more substantive quality metrics by which Robin's comments are well crafted, saving time etc for other users. – T.. Dec 7 '10 at 22:44
@T..: Single comments broken into many lines serves to highly obfuscsate comment threads. I've wasted some precious spare time navigating comment threads that were obfuscated in this way, as I'm sure many others have. It's disrepectful to the community to force others to have to deal with such obfuscation. – Bill Dubuque Dec 7 '10 at 22:52
@Jeff The fact that he posted your email and called it "threatening" and "gratuitous abuse" makes me highly wary of him becoming a moderator – Kyle Cronin Dec 8 '10 at 1:08
@Kyle: your user profile shows zero activity in math.SE (Q, A, tags, badges, etc), a huge amount of activity in SO and meta.SO where you are a top-ranked user and moderator, some recent meta postings expressing "concern" about MO (and no SO) affiliation of all the moderator candidates, and a defense of the low threshold for voting that is set barely high enough to prevent a flood of SO activists from voting (transfer account, one or two questions and they are enrolled). I have some doubt as to whether you are familiar with the math community, and this is not the thread for campaigning. – T.. Dec 8 '10 at 1:43
@ALL: In case anyone is wondering why the votes on this question quickly shot up from -10 to -1, the upsurge appears to be correlated with the announcement of this thread on the meta MO here. As such, it's not clear that such votes represent the users of this site (vs. MO folks who rarely use this site). I encourage non-active MO-folks to let the active users here decide the issues. – Bill Dubuque Dec 8 '10 at 2:07
@T..: Why do you think moderators/candidates should be exempt from the site rules? Rather, they should be role models. – Bill Dubuque Dec 8 '10 at 2:13
@Bill: the vote was at -3 (and has only risen since) prior to the link in meta.MO, as you can check by comparing the timestamp of the meta.MO comments to the timestamp of Isaac's "what is the meaning of the -3 negative vote count" question under one of the answers here. Before that it was at -5, and according to your comment at -10 at one point, so the upswing happened before any hypothetical flood from MO. Any SO user with a linked account could have put in a -1 in support of Jeff, so I don't understand why MO users should be discounted or the SO phenomenon ignored. – T.. Dec 8 '10 at 2:52
@T.. , just to be a devil's advocate here, I guess that can be an "it's so flecking obvious, do we even have to spell it out in the rules?" thing. – J. M. Dec 8 '10 at 3:04
But again, FWIW, I am the sort of fellow who is able to converse with this otherwise fine gentleman I know who has this peculiar tic of his head involuntarily snapping to the right every few minutes. I don't feel very strongly about the tic yet I can understand why tics would knot people's knickers. That being said, the use of loaded language is not something I'm fond of seeing, and both parties have erred in this regard. What would a détente take here? – J. M. Dec 8 '10 at 3:12
@T.. On meta sites you need at least 125 reputation to downvote. The account association bonus is only 100 rep. Therefore, every single downvote this topic has gotten has come from someone that has contributed to Math.SE. – Kyle Cronin Dec 8 '10 at 3:23
There was this nice point raised in the meta.MO discussion Bill linked to: certainly the disabling of the feature (or making it a user-specific preference; cookies are supposed to remember how you like your websites to behave, yes?) would have been a far better use of development time than going back and manually stitching together Robin's "haiku" comments. – J. M. Dec 8 '10 at 10:51
...well at least we now can't say Jeff didn't try a gentler tack. – J. M. Dec 9 '10 at 20:04

I am not sure I should be wading into this at all, but here goes:

In my opinion neither Jeff Atwood nor Robin Chapman is behaving well on this issue. They are both talking past each other and using highly pointed, rhetorical language.

Robin Chapman's message above is tagged with "sabotage", "threats" and "abuse-of-power": these are not the tags of calm, reasonable discussion. He characterizes the (relatively) recent change regarding the return key and comments as "deliberate sabotage" on the part of the SE administration. What he means, I think, is that it is not a bug but a deliberate change which a vast majority of users who have weighed in on the issue have expressed dissatisfaction with. But that's not the same as sabotage: while I admit to not understanding in the slightest why this change in the comments has been made (and I have accidentally hit return once or twice myself and not been pleased by the result), I'm sure that the SE people who did felt that it was, somehow, an improvement. That their goal is to sabotage their own software is not very credible.

I also think that a world-renowned mathematician, problem-solver and game-show winner like Robin Chapman probably does in fact have it in his ability to learn not to hit return at the end of each line of his comments. At least he could try, and if he fails he could edit together his comments. If he's not able and willing to do this, he doesn't make for an optimal moderator candidate, and this was the point behind the question I asked on this.

Conversely, Jeff Atwood is using very loaded, rhetorical language as well, and seems entirely too fixated on what should be for both parties a minor issue. I was recently contacted privately by Robert Cartaino asking for my opinion on certain aspects of the site, who cc'ed the email from Jeff Atwood suggesting that he contact me. I gave a long and detailed reply to both of them. I was very disappointed to receive a superficial, sarcastic reply from Jeff Atwood shortly thereafter. When I wrote back to say that he needn't contact me further unless he was serious about having a conversation, he responded by thanking me for my contribution and then wrote:

What's not serious or rational about pointing out that Robin Chapman, who [sic] you yourself singled out as an example of a community member with "decades" of experience, regularly engages in disrespectful, anti-community vandalism?

Well, where do I start? "Vandalism" is ridiculous: this terminology is unwarranted even if Robin's behavior were deliberate and malicious. But Robin has said that it is accidental, and I see no reason to believe otherwise. (This is not inconsistent with what I said before. People can do a lot of things by accident that they could avoid doing if they put their mind to it.) I don't see how it is "anti-community", since not a single community member has come forward and said they are bothered by his behavior (except me in this message, a little bit, but it's certainly no big deal). And by "disrespectful", I think Jeff Atwood can only mean disrespectful to him.

I have tried to make the point several times that Mr. Atwood seems to be conflating "community standards" with his own personal standards, and that this is disheartening to many and detrimental to community participation. In fact when I received an email which was, in essence [i.e., not a direct quote but a paraphrase] What's wrong with you people? You are so vocal in your critique and yet you refuse to participate in the democratic process! I explained the reasons why I myself did not have confidence that being a moderator would allow me to make any real difference on the site, this sort of thing being exactly what I had in mind. Suppose that I become a moderator and that two weeks from now Mr. Atwood suspends Professor Chapman for recalcitrant repeated rehitting of return. I would be strongly against this and (let us suppose) see that the majority of vocal users of the site feel the same way. So what do I do then? Take the matter up with Jeff Atwood? No thank you. He has not taken me seriously in our correspondence. (In fact, he has never even accepted my apology for an unwitting insult that I delivered, which is the one thing that I take somewhat personally.) Is it so hard to understand why I and others want to limit our involvement?

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"And by "disrespectful", I think Jeff Atwood can only mean disrespectful to him." Hardly. It's disrespectful to the community. This behavior says "every reader must manually assemble these comments into a coherent sentence, because I insist on entering them incorrectly." In other words, the reader's time is less valuable than the writer's. – Jeff Atwood Dec 7 '10 at 22:06
I don't see Robin getting a lot of complaints or downvotes for any "disrespect to the community". If anything he is getting upvotes and thanks for a lot of those multiline remarks. I would imagine that for any reader, the additional half-second to parse the multiline comments is more than compensated by the experience of reading incisive mathematical comments. Maybe there is a storm of protest over this "disrespect" accumulating in the email accounts of SE managers, demanding urgent action about this matter -- but it seems unlikely. – T.. Dec 7 '10 at 22:11
@T.. Comments cannot get downvotes, so I have no idea what argument you could possibly be making about Robin not getting downvotes. – angela o. Dec 7 '10 at 22:18
Actually, the stronger argument against "it's accidental" is that it is entirely fixable within the 5-minute editing window (or, in fact, by copy-pasting the fragments into a new comment and deleting the original fragments, even outside the editing window). I would conclude that he is deliberately letting the comments remain as fragments as some form of protest, though it really only inconveniences other users and disrupts the system of making up-voted comments more visible. – Isaac Dec 7 '10 at 22:25
@Jeff: your "consideration to other users" metric leaves much to be desired. Users who persistently post ungrammatical, careless, low-value, or -- by far the most time consuming -- wrong material in comments are not on track to receive any suspensions. I mean, some of these comments can consume a large amount of time from users who wade in to correct them, or (if they seem convincing or from knowledgeable users) can simply mislead a large number of readers. Robin's postings are far above average by such metrics. Quality control on important dimensions trumps nugatory ones. – T.. Dec 7 '10 at 22:30
@T.. that is a completely different topic. The point is that every community member should be able to follow reasonable, simple standards such as "please don't enter 6 incomplete comments when you could enter a single complete comment." If you want to get really persnickety, I could argue that Robin enters 5 incorrect comments when each is considered as a standalone comment! – Jeff Atwood Dec 7 '10 at 22:45
@T..: Would you consider the negative net score on his question here, the positive net score on Jeff's answer here, or the very positive net score on Pete's question in the questions-for-moderator-candidates thread to be "zero evidence"? – Isaac Dec 7 '10 at 22:47
@T.. but all the behavior you describe is symptomatic of the core problem, at the root of what we are trying to get at. Why is the multiple comment behavior persisting long beyond the "oops, I forgot" threshold? Why can't we have a rational, invective-free discussion about my IMHO reasonable request to post single coherent comments instead of 5-6 broken comments? I am not holding Robin to any different standard than anyone else on the site, yet you, and apparently some others, seem to think there should be some kind of exceptions for "special" users? Is this how math works? – Jeff Atwood Dec 7 '10 at 23:09
@george for reference, we once placed the #1 superuser.com user (and still the #1 user, actually) in timed suspension -- this is visible to any SU moderator in his user history. So I can prove the answer is "yes". – Jeff Atwood Dec 7 '10 at 23:19
@T.. I don't believe people would downvote an answer because of unrelated behavior by its author. I believe this goes against the entire philosophy of this website. The lack of downvotes on Robin Chapman's answers you reference is, in my opinion, due to the absence of this sort of pernicious behavior among users of this website. – angela o. Dec 7 '10 at 23:28
@T..: Again, you are attributing motives to me for which you have no basis ( cum hoc ergo propter hoc again). I see no point in arguing with you. About anything. Ever. – Isaac Dec 8 '10 at 1:18
I'm with Pete here; if both sides of an argument cannot and do not choose their words to avoid loaded language, there is absolutely no hope of compromise. Especially on an Internet site where even emoticons are unable to sufficiently capture nuance. – J. M. Dec 8 '10 at 1:21
@Jeff: the use of the word "litter" is part of the problem. Robin made a positive contribution, now wrongly redefined as "litter" by comparing it with an even-more-positive contribution that nothing in the formal or informal site material (FAQ's, meta, etc) says he is obligated to provide. His comment formatting is an issue not on its own merits but because of gratuitous and likely wrong speculation that the formatting itself is a form of "protest". The protest consisted of tags like [bug], [sabotage], [tyranny] etc and if suspension threat is for that, just say so. – T.. Dec 9 '10 at 1:32
@T.. the way the content was placed on the site is littering. Just because there are not signs posted across every square inch of the planet saying "do not litter" does not mean that it is OK to litter everywhere you do not see a sign specifically precluding littering. This is common sense, isn't it? – Jeff Atwood Dec 9 '10 at 2:20
@Jeff: Litter by most definitions means garbage, material whose contribution is negative or "better not having been posted". Adding erudite mathematical comments to a math site is ostensibly a positive thing. That the formatting could be improved does not, by itself, mean that the formatting is a problem, and if it is, something would have to be extremely harmful to overbalance the positive erudition to the point that the material would be better left unposted. Others wishing the erudite contributor to ALSO be an adept typist does not compel him to become one, much less adapt "or else". – T.. Dec 9 '10 at 5:06

Perhaps by the time you've pressed enter 3 times, and created 3 comments, you might realize that you've "accidentally" done this.. again.. as you add a fourth comment?

I was willing to overlook this for a week or so as you adapted -- but weeks later this is still an ongoing problem. That we don't have with any other user on any other site in our network, I might add. Across 500,000+ different users.

As I said in my email:

Your feelings on this matter have been duly noted; vandalizing the site to prove a point is not helping.

• it creates noise on the site, harming the experience for the community
• it creates needless work for moderators who have to clean up

I'm sorry you see this as a threat, when I see it as a simple

Please do not litter!

sign.

edit: I'm going through and manually merging all the Robin Chapman comments on math.se, I want to record some of the comments responding to his comments as I do so (I delete these afterwards, since after the comments are merged, it's no longer relevant.)

http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/4868/mapping-that-takes-unit-circle-to-unit-circle

@Robin Chapman: Why are your comments breaking! – Chandru1

http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/4363/kernel-of-the-tangent-map/4411#4411

@Robin Chapman : I asked a question on the meta site about the way I typographically see your comments: meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/787/… Do YOU see your own comments posted properly? [Can anybody else answer this question?] – Pierre-Yves Gaillard

http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/8449/number-of-isomorphism-types-of-functions-fn-n/8451#8451

@Robin: I really don't mean to complain, but it would be easier to read if that was all in a single comment. You can edit a just posted comment instead of adding another one, if you for example posted it by accident by hitting return. (Doesn't the "at most one comment per 15 seconds" blocking drive you insane when you write multiple comments like that, by the way?!?) – Hans Lundmark (3 upvotes)

http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/8449/number-of-isomorphism-types-of-functions-fn-n/8451#8451

Robin, I wonder - why do you keep splitting your comments over several lines? – M.B.

http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/8911/how-to-prove-that-t-is-the-0-operator-that-is-tv0-for-all-u-v-in-v/8914#8914

@Robin: please, stop making comments on several lines! You can use shift+return if you want a newline in your comment. (though it doesn't display it properly). – Djaian

http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/9991/when-is-a-graph-planar

@Robin: you should really start using that "edit" link when you accidentally hit the enter key too soon... – SamB

http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/13019

@Robin there is no need to press enter after you reached the end of the input box. The website will automatically wordwrap based on the screen of the viewer. – alexanderpas

A few other issues with this intentional multi-commenting, beyond -- as previously mentioned -- the obvious readability problems, and the work it creates for myself and other moderators:

• each comment can be voted up independently, leading to comment fragments when comments > 5
• each comment is a separate notification in the global inbox of the post owner
• comments may be fragmented even with no votes, if comments > 5
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Yes, you have a valid point. But would it be possible to overlook this infraction in view of Robin Chapman's positive contributions to the site? – user1119 Dec 7 '10 at 21:36
Hypothetical question: Suppose a high rep user at stackoverflow, say Jon Skeet, does the same. Would you suspend him? – user1119 Dec 7 '10 at 21:38
@George: I'm not Jeff but I think his answer would definitely be "yes." Besides, I question the ability of a person that cannot understand or accept how a system works to moderate it, with all the respect I may have for high profile maths professors. – badp Dec 7 '10 at 21:46
@badp: Oh, it is not at all about moderator elections. Suspending Robin Chapman would be subjecting him to unnecessary humiliation. Let me strongly assure you that such a step would have negative effects on user participation in this site, besides him possibly wanting to recuse himself. Not intended to insult you; but there can be easily a lot of people who can pontificate on the rules and regulations; but it isn't easy to get a person who can give good mathematical answers like Robin Chapman does. – user1119 Dec 7 '10 at 21:54
@george the "please do not litter" rule is a simple one. That I have to bring it up at all is unprecedented in the network. – Jeff Atwood Dec 7 '10 at 22:01
@George I wasn't suggesting he should be suspended. However, it is simply site policy that users that do not rectify their behavior after having received an email warning will be placed on a timed suspension. What's the point in having policies if they are not used consistently? – badp Dec 7 '10 at 22:02
@Jeff Atwood: Yes, yes, I understand your frustration. But please try to avoid suspending him. He is as of now an asset to the site. Please don't kill the goose that lays the golden egg simply because it cackles too much. – user1119 Dec 7 '10 at 22:04
Note that this is, in fact, at least the second time that a ♦ has emailed Robin Chapman asking him to stop posting split comments (or at least fix them himself within the 5-minute editing window). – Isaac Dec 7 '10 at 22:16
Jeff, the claim that you don't have the problem with "any other user" is not true, as I have had trouble with my comment posts on this site being accidentally posted when I hit return, usually when editing the text and hitting return to clear selected text, as is my (innocent) writing habit. I then delete the unintended post and start over, an irritating process. Because of this, I completely forgive Robin's multiple posts, and view this completely as a software problem, not a user problem. His posts seems to be neither vandalism nor protest, and his example posts are valuable mathematically. – JDH Dec 7 '10 at 22:40
@JDH: Note the difference: you delete the unintended post and leave single coherent comments. – Isaac Dec 7 '10 at 22:45
@george Whenever I email a user, it is not because I want to suspend them -- I email users, when I must, in the hopes that we can resolve the situation amicably. – Jeff Atwood Dec 7 '10 at 22:47
@JDH: I see this as a hardware problem, your key is mislabled if it specifies "return", it should specify "enter". You use it to "enter" a command on the command line. ( Enter Key on wikipedia ) also, why not pressing the "delete" key to "delete" input if that's what you want? – alexanderpas Dec 7 '10 at 23:03
Alexanderpas, my innocent preference is for my Enter key to behave in a comment text field as it does in all the other text editors that I use, rather than doing something radical, like submitting an entry to a web server. (While editing this post, I accidentally posted it---irritating.) – JDH Dec 7 '10 at 23:56
@JDH Yet the difference is that you fixed the accidental error on your side. – alexanderpas Dec 8 '10 at 7:11
@alexanderpass: the error is with the software. I have had the same problem JDH describes. When typing free-form text, the "enter" key by convention adds newline characters in the middle. It's silly for this site to override the default editing patterns for textareas. – Carl Mummert Dec 9 '10 at 16:00

I admit I'm baffled by the whole situation. I can't figure out why the SE team won't undo this unpopular "feature" or even explain why it's there, and I can't figure out why Prof. Chapman is claiming his behavior isn't meant as a protest, given that after an accidental hit of enter you could edit that comment instead of entering another comment.

More generally, there were a bunch of SE2.0 things that I was confused about initially which now all make sense to me due to one simple observation:

When the "community" is mentioned in the setting of SE they don't mean the x.SE community they mean the whole SE community (which is to say, the SO community).

This explains why sites are rolled out based on how much interest they have to SO users, this explains why policy is standardized across all sites, this explains why sites don't have their own administrators, etc. I think this is actually a reasonable decision on the part of the SE team who are trying to grow a coherent network rather than a series of separate sites.

Anyway the reason I bring all of this up is that people need to understand that they're not going to do comments one way here and another way at SO. The new SE2.0 system is intended to be largely uniform so that people can easily move from site to site and understand how everything will behave. It doesn't matter if 100% of the users of math.SE want the comments enter feature changed, if the SO community doesn't want it then it'll be the same thing here as there.

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as far as I can tell, the SO community does want the comments enter feature changed. Did you read the thread Robin Chapman linked to on meta.SO? – Qiaochu Yuan Dec 7 '10 at 23:54
Have SO/SE officials themselves articulated the observation about what "community" means (or equivalent observations)? – T.. Dec 8 '10 at 0:10
Indeed that does seem to be true in this case, which is partly why I'm so baffled. But I still think it was important to make this general point. They're not going to change their mind just because this one site is making a stink over it. – Noah Snyder Dec 8 '10 at 0:45

Prof. Robin Chapman states that he has the habit of hitting return key when he reaches the end of each line. This indeed seems to be true. A short google search would yield his posts at numerous mathematical websites with this same feature.

So,

Please do not intentionally leave multiple comments as a form of protest on http://math.stackexchange.com (or the meta site). Your feelings on this matter have been duly noted; vandalizing the site to prove a point is not helping.

seems to be a sad misunderstanding and

If you continue to do this, your account will be placed in timed suspension.

seems to be an over-reaction to something that is mostly a bearable inconvenience. The quality of his answers is such that it is more than worth the bother. It would be quite a tragedy to suspend such a valuable contributor for something that is not a major crime. I hope the powers-be wouldn't take such an extreme step.

That said, it would be great if prof. Chapman is willing to modify the writing habits. Then again, as I said above, I wouldn't press on the issue if he is really set in his ways.

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The newline-posts-comment feature causes some harm and little good. That it most visibly afflicts one of the top contributors, in addition to causing other types of trouble for all users and for the quality of comment threads in general, as discussed in various meta threads, should be a reason for SE to consider (un)modifying the software. I don't think that R.C. typing the comments as he does hurts anyone. – T.. Dec 7 '10 at 20:52
@T.. The newline-posts-comment feature causes more good than harm because, even if you did insert newlines (try shift-enter), they would not be shown in the output. There simply is no newline command in the comment field. – badp Dec 7 '10 at 21:53
@badp: have a look at meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/1258/… . On my screen I see a few empty lines in the middle of George S.' comment. Don't know if it's accidental or a supported feature. – T.. Dec 7 '10 at 22:18
@T.. that's because it has the mathjax characters  arbitrarily inserted in it – Jeff Atwood Dec 7 '10 at 22:20
@Jeff Atwood: That insertion was not arbitrary; it was done precisely for this purpose. I hope you wouldn't disable this possibility. – user1119 Dec 7 '10 at 22:22
@T.. That's a "clever" abuse of Mathjax, similar to the Minimarkdown empty links used to "cheat" the comment length limit. He inserted an empty display equation in his comment. :) – badp Dec 7 '10 at 22:22
I too similarly (ab)use MathJax all over the place to force desired layout, so I hope this will not be changed. – Bill Dubuque Dec 7 '10 at 22:35
I believe it is called the enter-enters-comment feature, where do you see a key named newline on your keyboard? – alexanderpas Dec 8 '10 at 7:07
@alexanderpas: I've been using enter, Enter, CR, carriage-return, and newline as synonyms in this and earlier discussion. The terms have all been used in various systems to denote a character of ASCII 13 = ctrl-M. What is printed on the key can vary (e.g "return" instead of "enter"). – T.. Dec 8 '10 at 9:11

A proposed compromise

Jeff Atwood suggested a workaround at this recent post. The issue seems to be a global issue that must be decided for thousands of users on dozens of websites all at once. So we can't expect a quick assent from them. While Mr. Atwood didn't yet fix the issue, he has at least suggested a workaround. We also have to be pragmatic and make adjustments.

Is it possible that everyone who is bothered by this CR-enters-comment feature/bug compromises by using the suggested greasemonkey script circumventing the issue?

Edit: Bill Dubuque notes below that the script was originally written by KennyTM at this post, for mozilla firefox. Thanks a lot to KennyTM too.

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As I mentioned above, said workaround was posted by KennyTM on Sep 9 - the same day Robin posted his original question. A minute of googling is all it takes to figure out how to install a greasemonkey script - which is now explained in Jeff's recent post. Thus any Firefox/Chrome user (e.g. Robin) can easily and quickly work around this "feature". Had it been me I would've thanked Kenny for the quick patch and been done with it. – Bill Dubuque Dec 9 '10 at 19:43
@Bill Dubuque: I had seen the post, but I was a user of google chrome and didn't quite know that greasemonkey works without any extra fixes for google chrome as well. I had in fact asked this question there and I didn't get a reply. Now I know what to do for google chrome, and at least I can rid myself off this pesky trouble. It would have been nicer to get it done on the server end, though. – user1119 Dec 9 '10 at 19:46
re: "had it been me" and the implications of that phrase, Robin's multi-line mathematical comments have been an obviously positive contribution to the site. Many people might delight in an improved formatting to his comments, but he owes it to no one, and for as long as Jeff Atwood does not recant the "harm" and "litter" remarks, for Robin to visibly switch format would add insult to injury by creating the appearance of assenting to those appalling characterizations, threats, and attempted ostracism of a contributor who is under no obligation to modify harmless stylistic practices. – T.. Dec 9 '10 at 22:00
@T..: True, but we have to be practical. I have no idea how to get out of this quagmire; but surely Atwood cannot be expected to understand and appreciate the value of Robin Chapman's mathematical contributions. A genuine apology from Jeff Atwood needs him to go thru R. Chapman's comments, judging their mathematical merit. It will be very time consuming. Asking him to do so would be impractical. So one would have to settle for less; I cannot really see any other way. If anybody has better ideas, it would be fantastic. This unnecessary fight is going on and on and there should be an end to it. – user1119 Dec 9 '10 at 22:36
George, I don't think quality of the mathematics is the issue. The only standard the comments have to meet for a retraction of the word "litter" to be in order, is to not be garbage. If Atwood were to state that Chapman's multiline comments on the math.SE main site never posed a problem, and that Chapman was never, in fact, a lone rogue user among 50000+ reasonable ones, this might clear the way for friendly and optional requests to do this or that about the formatting. Anything short of that would ask Chapman to assent to the preposterous notion that he is a site criminal. – T.. Dec 10 '10 at 4:51

Just another example of what we're talking about from the Some questions about the gamma function Question:

(that's 9 consecutive comments)

Note that the comments do have edit functionality, and the indicator below the comment box clearly states how many more characters fit into the comment.

Also, the internet is paragraph based, not line based, allowing each user to view the internet on the width they like the best. If your device supports only 42 characters in with, the internet can wrap your paragraphs seamlessly to it; if your device supports 314 characters in width, it will still wrap seamlessly; no need to press the enter anywhere, unless you actually want to "enter" the information (or create a new paragraph, where supported).

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Regardless of whether or not the system should submit the comment on return, this is a pretty clear example that Robin is intentionally doing this. – Kyle Cronin Dec 8 '10 at 0:01
@Kyle and @alexanderpas: It takes time to edit comments unintentionally submitted. Who knows under what conditions Robin is entering his comments? I share his habit of reflexively hitting return at the end of a (visual) line, and irritatingly waste time cleaning up the result. I can understand why he doesn't bother to waste time doing this. – Matt E Dec 8 '10 at 4:00
@alexanderpas: I'm not sure that I want to read too much into the submission times of Robin's comments; I have no idea how slowly/quickly he types. As for my typing habits, I was trained to type on a manual typewriter, and then developed my typing habits on a computer keyboard using text-based environments (Unix mail, typing up files in xterm boxes, etc.); I don't think I'm at all unique in this (as @T more-or-less notes in his comment following yours). The idea of letting an external environment set the line-length is very unintuitive to me (although I realize it is commonplace these days). – Matt E Dec 8 '10 at 5:06
Like Matt, JDH, Mariano, and many others I also am constantly getting snagged on the Enter-submits-comment. It is easy to instinctively hit Enter because in text-based environments it is often necessary and in most Internet environments it is inconsequential. The statements that "Robin is intentionally doing this" here and in the other comments are close to being malicious, since they impose a presumption that so doing violates any documented or undocumented rules, or that there is anything wrong with this seemingly harmless practice. Imperfect formatting is not a crime. – T.. Dec 8 '10 at 5:11
@alexanderpas: as your profile indicates, you are expert in many computer systems (hence, I suppose, better or more practiced at adapting to a variety of software environments and interfaces) whereas those of us getting stuck are mostly mathematicians, non-expert in software and often with a minimalist "whatever gets it done" approach to TeX, comment formatting and the like. On the other hand, even in meta.SO people are hating the new Enter = submit feature, so hackers may not be immune to the problem either. Your adaptive skill (and 3-4 times slowdown reading) may not be universal. – T.. Dec 8 '10 at 5:56
@alexanderpas: Dear Alexander, Yes, I certainly notice Robin's multiple entry comments, but they don't upset me. My original comment on this thread was to point out that it takes time to edit comments, and Robin may prefer just to leave his comments as they are (having inadvertently hit return --- just as I did again while composing this comment!) rather than spending the time to edit them. As I already wrote, if this is actually the explanation, I don't blame him. (Editing takes time and is irritating; I do it after my inadvertent returns, but I understand why he might not.) – Matt E Dec 8 '10 at 6:01
Alexanderpas, your answer here has numerous capitalization, punctuation and grammatical errors in it. You have numerous run-on sentences, singular/plural issues, missing initial capitalization and missing ending punctuation, and this makes it difficult to read your post. Could you kindly edit it to improve the formatting? – JDH Dec 8 '10 at 17:42
Thanks, Isaac, for correcting some of the errors. Perhaps Alexanderpas will be able to correct the remaining errors in capitalization, punctuation, spelling and number agreement. – JDH Dec 8 '10 at 18:35
@Isaac: alexanderpas is the person who started being nitpicky by pointing out to everyone stuff like the key in question is named "enter", instead of carriage return, or newline, etc.. He was trying to unnecessarily harass others for flimsy reasons. He more than deserves whatever he got in return. Please don't defend him in this issue. – user1119 Dec 8 '10 at 20:11
@Isaac: the point, obviously, is that Alexanderpas' material contains defects that impair reading at least as much as any aesthetic defect of multiline comments, but he and the hundreds of other users with such problems are not in line for any suspensions. – T.. Dec 8 '10 at 20:19
@alexanderpas: What is your business here professing the proper name of "enter" key? Your intention was to purely harass JDH and T.. etc who contributed many valuable answers to the site. You have zero mathematical activity here outside of asking some xkcd comic question. You are not willing to spend mathematical effort. You are not part of the administrative team either. Then why are you coming in like a bully and harassing genuine participants citing minor nitpicks? Is your role that of hired/borrowed muscle to intimidate people? – user1119 Dec 8 '10 at 21:14
@Bill: it was self-evident, as JDH himself said in almost so many words ("such formatting niceties fit well into the topic of this thread") that there is no grammar criticism per se, but (1) a criticism-of-critics (do they meet their own standards), and (2) an implied question of why only one type of minor formatting nicety by only one user is coming under unique and rather personal attack. Beyond that, the grammar of this or that user is of no public interest, and we are not discussing "grammar or spelling" but using grammar to discuss the management of the site. – T.. Dec 8 '10 at 23:05
@Bill, that's understood, but I think the present context is clearly enough distinguishable from a grammar attack precisely because the formatting niceties and the (I assume) non-native-English user's pedantic comments on computer keyboards and the like all came up earlier in the conversation, setting the scene. A grammar criticism out of the blue would of course be something to discourage. Holding self-appointed judges to the standards they have advocated, in a discussion of those standards, is fine and grammar pedantry is also fine as a way of making the necessary arguments. – T.. Dec 8 '10 at 23:47
@Bill: Dear Bill, I think that JDH's comments can reasonably be described as satire, and I'm surprised that they have been treated as anything but. – Matt E Dec 9 '10 at 1:10
Thank you very much, Alexanderpas. After Isaac's edits and yours, there seem now to be only eight remaining errors of grammar, spelling and punctuation in your post, which I could enumerate if you like. Probably it is not worth bothering about, however, although in comparison with Robin's eight extra enter keystrokes, the argument becomes something of a toss up in my eyes. My suggested solution to these errors is: an extra dose of tolerance all around, suspensions neither for Robin nor for you, and apologies. In particular, please accept my apology for picking on your writing to make a point. – JDH Dec 9 '10 at 13:06